Three Black Artists


Henry Ossawa Tanner was a late Nineteenth Century painter who trained with Thomas Eakins but moved to Paris so he could live more freely as a black man than he could in the United States. He is best known for “The Banjo Player” which critics say gives a more humane account of a black man teaching his grandchild to play the banjo than did William Sidney Mount’s painting of the same name from a half century earlier. But reading in moral messages about what a black painter might try to do with a painting that is different from what a white artist might do is beside the point, the point being what Tanner does do as an artist, how he composes and colors his painting and so gives it a distinctive life. The important thing about Tanner’s “The Banjo Player” is the white splotch of light in the right hand corner where various utilitarian objects, towels and crockery, are to be observed, and the contrast between that and the shadowy nature of the rest of the painting, it all suffused in a bluish glow. In fact, Tanner’s success as an artist is his use of blue tones, as those are set against white ones, in so many of his paintings. They are his distinctive signature as an artist.


Perhaps the greatest realization of Tanner’s artistic project is “Gateway. Tangiers”, where he takes a not particularly noteworthy feature of local architecture and transforms it into being part of his artistic universe by portraying it mostly in blue and white, as if those two colors on the spectrum were the only ones needed to do the job, just as, at a later date, in the Forties, there were motion pictures released that all had a sepia tone that contrasted, on the one hand, with the very richly textured black and white films of the time and, on the other, with the overly colored look of the technicolor movies of the time. Blue and white seem in Tanner to be the universal language that can take on any object. Tanner does use yellow for sunlight and a greenish blue for a door hidden from the sun, but blue is the color of shadows and blue and white are the colors of the robes of his natives depending on whether they are standing in the light or in shadows. The light coming from the outside through the gateway is white and the shadows are blue, and colors that are shades made up of combinations of blue and white provide the interest of the painting, that interest being how much you can do with so little. As I say, the subject matter hardly deserves a second glance.

Much the same can be said about Tanner’s “Daniel in the Lion’s Den”. It doesn’t carry much religious conviction, the lions not caught about to pounce or in any other interesting posture. What there is is an expressionless Daniel hidden in bluish shadows, a white splotch across his middle. The color tones make the picture, as they do in “Flight from Egypt”, which depicts little more than a few people moving on mules through the lower part of the picture, most of it taken up with the blue and green background of what is clearly the French countryside: low stone walls and trees. The subject is religious but the painting, as always, is a study in colors, as was also true of other painters of his time, such as Whistler. That is the way Tanner made his mark as what I would call a minor painter, which is not a condescending term, but a way to identify him as having a specific skill, which is to suffuse his paintings with a glow of a particular combination of colors, rather than because he does justice to a major theme, such as one of those in the Bible, as do other artist’s who can be regarded as major painters because they do give vision to such larger issues as the nature of personhood, in Rembrandt, or the reality of angels and cherubs, in Rubens.


There are two other African American artists who deserve the honor of being called minor artists (as opposed to either major artists or hardly artists at all). One is Aaron Douglas, a generation younger than Tanner, and a participant in the Harlem Renaissance. He does the same thing Tanner does. He takes momentous themes, in his case slavery rather than the Bible, and gives stereotypical or only cliched renditions of them, in the service of his real art, which is the use of a small palette of colors to take the place of all the colors in the spectrum. So his art is less representation of history than some stylistic rendering of the relations of some colors. One such painting, “Into Bondage”, is about the early part of captivity, some of the newly enslaved walking in chains. What the viewer sees is a study in blue, white and brown, all of it seen through a haze, the shackled captives in angular silhouettes behind leaves, the cuffs of their chains standing out because they are in an orange that is matched to the brown of some of the leaves. In another Douglas painting. “Amerika”, there are whites, browns and blacks sharing the pictorial space with one another and through a mist there are also silhouettes , this time of stylized warriors, dancers and drummers, the picture tied together by its colors. Indeed, one can image that any number of the paintings in his “Aspects of Negro Life” series or even one of them could be printed checkerboard style and with a beige background on drapery or wall paper and provide a very pleasurable piece of home decoration. That is not a condescending remark. Douglas worked as an interior designer--as, in fact, did de Kooning. The point is that the central interest of his work is not his subject matter, even as we may all genuflect into the power of those themes that are better understood and represented in other sources, both literary and artistic, such as the records of lower class and middle class Harlem people made by the African American photographer James Van Der Zee who pose for the camera but look naturally and unselfconsciously dignified and so are far more moving than Douglass’s mere references to the history of African Americans. But photography and painting, after all, are very different arts, with different ambitions, art for almost two hundred years now, to give a color sheen to life, while photography captures it as it is.

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A third African American artist, also working during the Harlem Renaissance, but younger than Douglass, is Jacob Lawrence, who also composed a number of sets of portensiously titled paintings also makes his subjects appear in silhouette, but many of these paintings seem to me to be far superior to what Tanner and Douglass offer, perhaps because Lawrence’s colors are more vivid and cover a large part of the spectrum, but also because he has insights about his subject matter that he incorporates into the paintings. His painting of chained people in his series on Harriet Tubman, a painting entitled “Harriet Tubman dreams of freedom” makes the chains oversized and so very daunting but he also has the three men in the painting dressed in variously colored and patterned pants, as if to betoken their individuality or that they come from a culture that values beauty. His portrait of migrants in his Migration Series, this one entitled “One Way Ticket”, is of clusters of people who are presumably going north from the backward South, are well clothed and carry valises and packages that do not seem particularly burdensome because the people who are carrying them are upright rather than bent over and the children seem to be skipping along. This seems a joyous migration, very different from the one in “Fiddler on the Roof” or the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears. These people are going to become free.  Not that Lawrence can’t be sad and fearsome. His portrait of Haiti is of white people looking askance and threateningly towards the black people in the bushes. But, by and large, Lawrence is providing a view jacob lawrence one way ticketof an upward climb rather than only of oppression and so allows the viewer to think of African American history as having been, again, by and large, a success story and not just a lament.

Lawrence was a very prolific artist. He  composed in a variety of ways, sometimes an eerie presentation of blind beggars, the sighted children with larger eyes than the beggars they are either escorting or hounding, or a complex street scene, as in “Harlem Rooftops”, but always with his subjects in silhouette and without molding their faces, as if he were a predecessor to Alex Katz in thinking that portraits could, most radically, dispense with the need for that kind of accuracy. His boldness is part of his accomplishment and puts him, perhaps, at the highest reaches of the minor artist in that, along with Katz, the emotional range is not large enough to justify the status of someone who represents people naturally or, as Picasso does, makes you think his portraits of seemingly distended people, their insides on the outside, are in fact the true view of these people and are portraits in the older sense of the term.