Henry Ossawa Tanner Oil Painting 1894
Over the years, I’ve often filled my social media with rants about Thanksgiving and its misrepresentation of a joyful time of Pilgrims and Native Americans happily eating turkey and beautifully colored corn and pumpkin pie. I would sometimes include paintings or articles about the persecution of Native peoples. My favorite was to include statistics about the deaths in the turbulent times following (and preceding) the first Thanksgiving.
Sometimes I would point out that if there hadn’t been a smallpox outbreak amongst the Pokanoket brought to them via the Europeans, their leader, Oasamequin, wouldn’t have even had to make the alliance with the Pilgrims at all. In reality, he could have let them starve to death. All pretty gloomy stuff.
When Kip died in November of last year, I really thought about what he always said when I would post that sort of thing. He would point out how although it may be true, I could focus on something positive in the world, instead of always something negative, even if I thought I was “shedding light” on some of America’s darkest times.
So last Thanksgiving I broke with tradition. I instead posted a painting by Camille Pissaro entitled The Crystal Palace. I wanted to “shed light” on a successful refugee who became the father of Impressionism. You can read what I wrote last year here: The Crystal Palace. So in an attempt to keep with the positivity, I have chosen the painting The Thankful Poor by Henry Ossawa Tanner to share with you today.
Henry Ossawa Tanner is generally considered a realist painter, although I find that is a bit of a misnomer. He did have highly realistic paintings, but he had others that were Impressionistic. He was a painter of portraits, landscapes, Biblical scenes, and is even sometimes categorized as a Mystic painter. He really has one of the most diverse libraries of work of any painter I’m aware of. In this particular work, you can plainly seen the influence of his teacher, the great Realist Thomas Eakins.
Henry’s father was a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. His mother was born a slave and escaped via the Underground Railroad. He grew up in Pittsburgh and became the first and most successful African-American student accepted into the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Although he was successful in the States, he didn’t find true freedom until he went to Europe. In Paris, he could live without the racism he endured during Reconstruction in a Southern leaning city. He was free to marry his Swedish-American opera singer bride.
In Europe he wasn’t a successful “colored” artist. There he was a highly acclaimed American artist. The color of his skin didn’t define his artwork, his talent did. He became the first African-American in history to have his works shown in a Paris Salon.
Henry O. Tanner went on to work for the Red Cross Public Information Department during World War I where he painted the front lines. In 1923 he became a knight of the Legion of Honor for his service.
The Thankful Poor was painted on a visit back to the States in 1894. This was done shortly after his award-winning The Banjo Lesson was met with acclaim all over Europe. I like to believe both paintings share the same subjects, although I can’t find any sources to back up that theory. However, the older man and child appear to be in the same room in both paintings.
This painting really expresses to me what Thanksgiving is actually about. The man and child are bowing their heads to give thanks over their small, but sufficient meal. The blended color of the walls is echoed in the table covering, giving a wonderfully muted yet colorful backdrop. It really allows the folds in the man’s shirt and the curls on the boy’s head to really pop.
The grandfather figure’s face is in shadow, so you can’t see his features well. The boy, conversely, is bathed in light. The glow on the boy’s face from the light streaming through the window is nearly angelic. To me, this seems like a metaphor for their lives. The man has come through dark times, the boy has a bright future.
I imagine the man thanking God for his ability to have survived through his hardships, while asking for protection over his young grandson. The boy maybe thanking God for having his grandfather there to protect him and support him and provide him with the meal. That’s the beauty of art, it’s up to you to decide what it means.
However you spend this Thanksgiving, take a minute to be thankful for those around you. Remember not only the parts of their lives they share with you, but those parts without you. Be grateful for everything they have gone through to get to where they are today, and be hopeful for their future.
The Banjo Lesson, 1893