Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937)
Les Invalides, Paris, 1896
Henry Ossawa Tanner was one of the foremost African American artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In 1894 he moved permanently to Paris, where he forged collegial relationships with white artists that would have been unimaginable in his homeland. He won numerous awards both in the United States and Europe and was an inspiration for younger African American artists. Although best known for his religious paintings, Tanner depicted an urban scene in this work, which demonstrates his interest in impressionist subjects and techniques. The painting shows Les Invalides, a complex including Napoleon’s tomb and the Hôtel des Invalides, which was founded as a home for disabled military veterans—the first institution of its kind. Tanner’s choice of this landmark may reflect the artist’s interest in social injustice.
Learn more about this painting on the Terra Foundation website.
Crossing the Atlantic in 1891, Henry Ossawa Tanner may have been the first African American artist to set out on the European Grand Tour that familiarized young artists with the canon of European culture. He was following the example of his role model, the great Philadelphia painter Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), and he intended to study in France and Italy before returning home. Paris changed his plans.
The sparkling dome in Les Invalides (1896), which Tanner painted in this impressionistic view of the “city of light,” is a symbol of the artistic experience he had anticipated, and also of the refuge from American racism and the violence of the world, which Paris came to embody for him. An asylum in the literal sense, the institution of Les Invalides had been established by Louis XIV (1638–1715) at the end of the seventeenth century as a nursing and retirement home for wounded soldiers; in 1840 under King Louis-Philippe (1773–1850) it was transformed into a grandiose tomb for Napoleon (1769–1821), whose thirst for conquest plunged Europe into fire and blood. Tanner mobilized these echoes of war in a painting that can also be seen, metaphorically, as acknowledging victims of the American Civil War and the brutal institution of slavery that preceded it. The artist’s mother, Sarah, had been a slave in Virginia but had escaped to the North, eventually settling in Philadelphia when Henry was a small child.
What Philadelphia represented for his parents, Paris became for Tanner. This small canvas was painted as a personal side note to two great public successes: his Daniel in the Lions’ Den (1895; later version, 1907–1918, Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and The Banjo Lesson (1893, Hampton University Museum, Virginia), painted during a brief return trip to Pennsylvania. This last painting pictures filial love, paternal transmission, and the intimacy of the family home—things the young painter had abandoned for a foreign artistic “family” and place of shelter. In Les Invalides the woman in black and the clergymen may allude to the artist’s parents (his father was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopalian Church), but they cede pride of place to the great national refuge.
Is Paris still the city of exile and art that Tanner saw? In this pioneering, programmatic painting, he invites us to write a history of this mythic metropolis—the Paris of arts—as a place both politically hospitable and experimentally creative. Has it ever really been that place? It is useful to recall that at the time of Tanner’s painting this perceived utopia was also the Paris of the Dreyfus affair (1894–1906), which exposed the breadth and depth of French anti-Semitism.1
Regardless, through much of the twentieth century the city continued to attract African American artists, and we should follow Tanner’s invitation and study seriously the contribution of artists like himself to the art of Paris—a contribution focused on the city’s predisposition for welcoming and sheltering the conflicted and paradoxical aspects of art and politics.
At the end of the nineteenth century Captain Albert Dreyfus, a French Jew, was found guilty of treason; more than ten years later he was acknowledged to be innocent. The affair divided French intellectual life between those who advocated for Dreyfus and those who condemned him, often in anti-Semitic terms. ↩︎