Pink and the Fancy Gal: White Slavery, the Abolitionists’ Crusade, and the Painter’s Canvas

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Slavery, United States on 2016-11-29 01:35Z by Steven

Pink and the Fancy Gal: White Slavery, the Abolitionists’ Crusade, and the Painter’s Canvas

Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: a journal of nineteenth-century visual culture
Volume 15, Issue 3, Autumn 2016

Naurice Frank Woods Jr., Assistant Professor of African American Art History; Director of Undergraduate Studies in the African American and African Diaspora Studies Program
University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Fig. 1, George Fuller, The Quadroon, 1880. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of George A. Hearn, 1910.

This article examines two paintings from the antebellum period, The Slave Market (ca. 1859) by an unidentified artist and The Freedom Ring (1860) by Eastman Johnson, which involve the purchase of nearly white slaves, and attempts to delineate the motivation for presenting these images before the public. These paintings functioned much as slave narratives, and abolitionists used them to provide visual evidence of an insidious, often sexually depraved side of “the peculiar institution.”

In late 1849, Massachusetts native George Fuller (1822–84) traveled throughout the Deep South in pursuit of portrait commissions.[1] Like many of his northern contemporaries, Fuller sought a receptive and less competitive climate below the Mason-Dixon Line. The artist’s journey placed him directly in the midst of a region addicted to the institution of slavery, and while it may not have been his intention to observe astutely the lives of human chattel, Fuller was increasingly aware of their plight and recorded his observations in a sketch diary. Fuller’s drawings and subsequent commentary revealed neither his political inclinations about the “great divide” that was gripping the nation nor his moral position on the subject. This was, however, his third trip to the region, and while his sketches remained dignified depictions of black plantation life, his words reflected growing concern over certain “rituals” conducted in the South.

One of these rituals, a slave auction involving a beautiful quadroon, affected him profoundly. Fuller had witnessed slave auctions before, but the sight of men bidding over a nearly white slave like a farm animal caused him to write:

Who is this girl with eyes large and black? The blood of the white and dark races is at enmity in her veins—the former predominated. About ¾ white says one dealer. Three fourths blessed, a fraction accursed. She is under thy feet, white man. . . . Is she not your sister? . . . She impresses me with sadness! The pensive expression of her finely formed mouth and her drooping eyes seemed to ask for sympathy. . . . Now she looks up, now her eyes fall before the gaze of those who are but calculating her charms or serviceable qualities. . . . Oh, is beauty so cheap?…

Read the entire article here.

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A Missing Question Mark: The Unknown Henry Ossawa Tanner

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2013-04-03 01:01Z by Steven

A Missing Question Mark: The Unknown Henry Ossawa Tanner

Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: a journal of nineteenth-century visual culture
Volume 8, Issue 2 (Autumn 2009)

Will South, Chief Curator
Dayton Art Institute

Henry Ossawa Tanner in 1907

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893.
Oil on canvas, 49″ × 35½”. Hampton University Museum.

This article examines Henry Ossawa Tanner’s complex sense of his own racial identity. Tanner’s conflict was born of the fact that in his personal adult life he walked a fragile line between his whiteness and his blackness; in France, he systematically worked to remove race from the equation of his life. The author also identifies for the first time the source of his best-known painting, The Banjo Lesson.

Race remains at the heart of Henry Ossawa Tanner studies. Though he would have wished it not to be so, the issue of Tanner’s African American identity defined him in the late nineteenth century and continues to be the criterion by which twenty-first-century audiences appraise his legacy. Tanner struggled and sacrificed to become a recognized and accomplished painter of spiritual narratives, while we would have him also be a reluctant hero—the artist who against all odds overcame social barriers to shine at the Paris Salons, see his work purchased by the Musée du Luxembourg, and be compared critically with James McNeill Whistler. Tanner’s path to artistic success was indeed marked by instances of insult and injustice, and his career ascendancy was a remarkable feat. He lived his life, however, one that was driven by a commitment to the creation of art, in conflict with the hopeful expectations of many of his contemporaries. Tanner’s conflict, one of enormous pain and complexity, was born of the fact that in his personal adult life he walked a fragile line between his whiteness and his blackness; in France, he systematically worked to remove race from the equation of his life.

In 1914 the poet and art critic Eunice Tietjens wrote an article provisionally titled “H. O. Tanner” that she had hoped to publish in the International Studio.[1] She sent Tanner a draft of the article along with a letter, which read in part:

If there is anything in the article that you don’t like or don’t think is true I’m afraid you’ll have to expostulate to the editor, if he accepts it [the article]. The “if” seems large to me tonight, but then I’m tired . . .

Do write to me what you think of it. Here’s luck to us![2]

Tanner, in his rely to that letter, stated that the one problem he had with her article was contained in its last paragraph which reads:

In his personal life Mr. Tanner has had many things to contend with. Ill-health, poverty and race prejudice, always strong against a negro, have made the way hard for him. But he has come unspoiled alike through these early struggles and through his later successes. Simple and sincere like his canvases he has quietly followed his own instinct for beauty and has already given to the world many unforgettable paintings, while there are yet many years of work before him.[3]

Tanner’s objection was to the inference that he is a Negro. In the most comprehensive study done to date on the artist, the 1991 Philadelphia Museum of Art catalogue accompanying the exhibition of the same name, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Dewey Mosby characterizes Tanner’s response to Tietjens’s article as being revelatory of “the complicated nature of Tanner’s own thinking about race.”[4] Tanner’s reply begins:

May 25—1914
Dear Mrs. Tietjens—

Your good note & very appreciative article to hand I have read it & except it is more than I deserve, it is exceptionally good. What you say, is what I am trying to do, and in a smaller way am doing it (I hope).

The only thing I take exception to is the inference in your last paragraph—& while I know it is the dictum in the States, it is not any more true for that reason—

You say “in his personal life, Mr. T. has had many things to contend with. Ill-health, poverty, and race prejudice, always strong against a negro”—Now am I a Negro? Does not the 3/4 of English blood in my veins, which when it flowed in “pure” Anglo-Saxon men & which has done in the past, effective & distinguished work in the U.S.—does this not count for anything? Does the 1/4 or 1/8 of “pure” Negro blood in my veins count for all? I believe it (the Negro blood) counts & counts to my advantage—though it has caused me at times a life of great humiliations & sorrow—unlimited “kicks” & “cuffs” but that it is the source of all my talents (if I have any) I do not believe, any more than I believe it all comes from my English ancestors.

I suppose according to the distorted way things are seen in the States my curly blond curly-headed little boy would be a “negro.”[5]

Tanner’s statement “I believe it (the Negro blood) counts & counts to my advantage” has been interpreted as “clear confirmation of his [Tanner’s] pride in his own roots.”[6] When this letter was cited in the Philadelphia catalogue, however, the transcription contained a significant mistake. Instead of a period—”Now am I a Negro.”—Tanner actually placed a question mark at the end of that sentence: “Now am I a Negro?” This one mark completely changes the meaning of Tanner’s reply. Whereas he did not discount his African American blood, he emphasized that he is more white than black: three-quarters white, perhaps as little as one-eighth “pure” Negro. Furthermore, according to Tanner, neither his whiteness nor his blackness accounted for his talent.

The phrase “Now am I a Negro?” is profound evidence that Tanner understood himself to be, by virtue of genealogy and self-definition and not according to the “distorted way things are seen in the States,” not black. It was, he had come to conclude, a matter open to discussion. Yes, his African American blood counted, but again in his words, did the three-quarters of his English blood “not count for anything?”…

Read the entire article here.

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Painting the World’s Christ: Tanner, Hybridity, and the Blood of the Holy Land

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Religion on 2011-06-30 21:23Z by Steven

Painting the World’s Christ: Tanner, Hybridity, and the Blood of the Holy Land

Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: a journal of ninetheenth-century visual culture
Volume 3, Issue 2 (Autumn 2004)

Alan C. Braddock, Assistant Professor of Art History
Tyler School of Art, Temple University

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s global vision of Christ circa 1900 projected an ideal of hybridity that embodied the artist’s personal resistance not only to racial stereotypes but also to racial thinking as such.

In 1899, Henry Ossawa Tanner painted Nicodemus Visiting Jesus (fig. 1), based on a story from the Gospel of John in which Christ tells a Jewish Pharisee of miraculous visionary powers available to those who are born again. By signing the painting “H. O. Tanner, Jerusalem, 1899,” the artist touted his firsthand knowledge of Palestine, where he spent eleven months on two separate trips between 1897 and 1899. The Nicodemus is one of several paintings with biblical subjects that Tanner produced around 1900 after expatriating himself from the United States. Frustrated by pervasive racial discrimination on account of his African ancestry, Tanner left Jim Crow America in 1894 to live in France for the rest of his life, except for occasional family visits to Philadelphia and artistic expeditions to Palestine and North Africa.

By 1900, Tanner had become an international success—exhibiting regularly at the Paris Salon, winning awards, and attracting more critical praise than many American artists, including his former teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Thomas Eakins. In 1897, Tanner’s The Resurrection of Lazarus (fig. 2) was exhibited to great acclaim at the Salon, awarded a medal, and purchased by the French government for its Luxembourg Gallery of contemporary art. Expatriation in Europe actually enhanced Tanner’s artistic reputation in America during these years, for he exhibited often in New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. In 1900 the Nicodemus was purchased by the Pennsylvania Academy and awarded the prestigious Lippincott Prize. Yet it was only in the European art world and in biblical subject matter that Tanner found what he called “a perfect race democracy.”…

…The present article focuses precisely upon Tanner’s ambiguous racial construction of Christ circa 1900, a topic overlooked in previous scholarship on the artist but one having significant consequences for our historical understanding of his work and more broadly for how we interpret American art and identity from an international postcolonial perspective. Put simply, I argue that Tanner and his biblical paintings at the turn of the twentieth century—especially the Nicodemus and others depicting Christ as a figure of universality—offered a critique not simply of racism, but of “race” itself as an epistemological category. In that respect, Tanner’s work offers an important international model for de-colonizing art by interrogating race at a moment when the dominant culture in the United States was deeply invested in segregation and difference. Those investments, of course, were articulated most famously in the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of 1896, allowing individual states to establish “separate but equal” public facilities based on racial difference. Such institutionalized segregation prompted W. E. B. Du Bois to identify the “color-line” as the “problem of the twentieth century.”

For Tanner, however, the problem was not simply one of crossing or negotiating the “color-line” in painting but rather how to put that line, and the very idea of race, under erasure by highlighting the elusiveness—and therefore the universality—of Christ’s identity. What makes Tanner’s case especially interesting is the relationship that obtained between his pictures and his person, seen here in a photograph of around 1900, when he was about 40 years old (fig. 4). Tanner was a relatively light-skinned man whose complexion and physiognomy did not conform to stereotypical conceptions of blackness, but rather prompted a variety of (often overlapping) racial identifications, including “mulatto,” “Latin,” and even “Aryan.” In the eyes of many contemporaries, Tanner and his work were complex hybrids that resisted clear racial definition, in a manner akin to the universality of Christ and the demography of the Holy Land. My purpose here is to examine the visual and historical evidence of that resistance by closely reading a selection of Tanner’s paintings in relation to various writings by contemporary critics and by the artist himself…

Read the entire article here.

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Affirming Blackness: A Rebuttal to Will South’s “A Missing Question Mark: The Unknown Henry Ossawa Tanner”

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2011-06-30 20:38Z by Steven

Affirming Blackness: A Rebuttal to Will South’s “A Missing Question Mark: The Unknown Henry Ossawa Tanner”

Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: a journal of ninetheenth-century visual culture
Volume 9, Issue 2 (Autumn 2010)

Naurice Frank Woods, Visiting Assistant Professor of African American Studies
University of North Carolina, Greensboro

George Dimock, Associate Professor of Art History
University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Will South’s recent article proposing a heretofore “unknown” Henry Ossawa Tanner who was conflicted about his African American identity and who, while in France, sought to pass as white demonstrates an impressive mastery of archival sources and a flair for persuasive re-interpretation. It is all the more problematic therefore that he misinterprets the available evidence and thereby diminishes the cultural significance of Tanner’s work. Most ingeniously, South builds an elaborate yet spurious argument by restoring a question mark to Tanner’s declaration “Now am I a Negro?” in a famous epistolary exchange with art critic Eunice Tietjens in 1914. In so doing he refashions the foremost African American artist of the nineteenth century as a tragic mulatto—a man who saw himself “as mostly white,” who worked while in France to “systematically…remove race from the equation of his life,” and was willing “to conceal the African American component of his extraction.” South concludes with a critical appraisal that undermines the integrity of Tanner’s art by claiming that “his achievements, ultimately, were grounded in a life of complex compromise lived in between his blackness and his whiteness.”

With or without the missing punctuation, Tanner’s response to Tietjens resounds as his most important statement on race. It reflects his utter frustration with America’s practice of applying a rule of hypodescent (the “one-drop rule“) that defined him as an innately inferior being and constricted his opportunities as artist and citizen. What Tanner was rejecting in his response to Tietjens was not his race but the American art establishment’s continual labeling of him as “Negro” whenever his talent was evaluated. By way of contrast, the Paris art world showed “steadily increasing interest” in his work, linking him with his fellow countrymen, James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent, without “slight[ing] his art in the exploitation of his race” as was the custom in the U.S. press. Tanner considered himself principally an American artist and he affirmed his right to join the ranks of the cultural elite based on artistic merit and racial equality. Tanner’s life and art challenged his nation’s disingenuous notions of race. When taken in context, his question to Tietjens, “Now am I a Negro?” is far from being a renunciation of his black ancestry and heritage as South would have it. Rather it functions rhetorically as sardonic irony in response to the cruelties and stupidities of white racism…

Read the entire article here.

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