Mystic Stories From The Sketchbooks of Henry Ossawa Tanner, Part 2

The Thankful Poor, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1894 (Wikipedia Commons)

For Part One from last week, click here

Since its publication in 1969, the biography written by Marcia M. Mathews has been the most thorough and encyclopedic retelling of Tanner’s personal life. Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist (1969) contains direct quotes from Tanner’s personal papers. The book’s eighteen chapters walk us through Tanner’s early in life experience of moving around the east and southeast of the United States, his family’s eventual settling down in Philadelphia, and through the end of Tanner’s lifetime devotion to making art. Tanner was known for being an introvert. “Mr. Tanner cannot be interviewed, because he has nothing to say; that is, nothing about himself.”1 As a result, there are things about his personality that he never revealed. However, in his personal papers he shares stories that, as far as my research indicates, haven’t made their way into publication.

Mathews writes, “When Henry Tanner’s own son was six years old he wrote a little story for him, in which he describes what must have been his first home in Philadelphia.” In this story Tanner is a little kid who enjoyed helping his mother cook pies and cake, but he was tasked with responsibility for the “terrible affair” of collecting coal in the cellar and bringing it upstairs for use in the house. Tanner states his assessment as initiated by a call to work from his mother. “’Now, Henry go down and get me a bucket of coal’ were anything but welcome. Had I rushed off I could have done it in 3 minutes but it seemed to be that it was a terrible affair and I started up slowly, very slowly…”[2] Tanner shares this domestic story at the beginning of a ten-page letter which was written on paper that had a letterhead of T.S.S. NIEUW AMSTERDAM. This was the name of Holland’s largest ocean liner of the time. Tanner may have been riding on the ship while he wrote the letter. 

There is evidence that he spent significant time and effort writing the letter because there are amendments on the back and front of each sheet of paper, and there are words crossed out and rephrased. In a footnote Mathews acknowledges that “this story exists only in an unfinished rough draft.” This portion of Tanner’s letter appears in at least two other art historical books about his life. Because this letter is so long I can’t include it all here, but the portion below begins immediately after the part that Mathews quoted in her book:

“I dragged on anyway slowly to the cellar door and started down when ½ way down I was surprised to see the cellar very bright and as I advanced the brighter it seemed. Someone must have been down there and have left a lamp burning but this was extraordinary. I have never known it to happen before. At the foot of the stairs I saw the light was all coming from underneath the stairway, a place I had rarely ventured, and in the wall where I had always supposed there was only an archway I saw in reality was a heavy old door partly opened and through that opening the light was streaming in as it was enough to light all the cellar — as long as there was light I was bold, so I dropped my coal bucket and pushed this door wide open — Curiously enough, my first surprise of finding a light in the cellar over, I was not surprised to see what appeared to be a long passageway brilliantly lighted. In either side were rows of pillars, in reality tree trunks whose use was to hold the earth or wall or whatever it was. This was difficult to say and near the doorway it was low and easy to tell what it was but the entryway soon grew so high that it was impossible to see the roof despite the strong light it was lost in mystery. Turning around I was surprised to see that he doorway by which I had entered was now a small dark spot in the distance and turning again to look ahead I saw a little man dressed in a most curious costume with one of those leather hats used by firemen at that time…”2

This story continues for another six pages. Tanner passes by the row of pillars in the cellar, into an outdoor pastoral landscape. He moves quickly because his legs have taken on independent control of the speed and direction of his body. He interacts with fences, paved roads, plants, farm animals, and seafarers. The story ends with a clever paternal adage, “you are good when you are asleep, because those who played the hardest were the ‘best toys’, and as I have said all played the hardest when asleep.” A father using a wacky story to entertain and educate their child is not an uncommon practice, so this story may not reveal much more than a humorous aspect of Tanner’s character. 

The value of this extensive story is that it provides a context in which to understand the many other stories in Tanner’s archive. Similar mystical journeys are written not just to his son, but also to colleagues, friends, and family. For an art student trying to learn from and about a famous artist, it’s a standard practice to look at their work and also look at their sketchbooks. This is how you learn the arc of reasoning and methodology that led to the artworks on the museum walls. I propose that the same be applied to a writer’s published and unpublished writings. In the context of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s writings, there are mystical stories which have been floating below the surface, and therefore out of our field of view, for quite some time. I hope we can bring them up into the light.

  1. Friend, Ethelyn. “A Success of the ’97 Salon: H.O. Tanner’s Fine Picture, the “Raising of Lazarus”. Herald Newspaper. June 13, 1897.
  2. Henry Ossawa Tanner papers. Archives of American Art.
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Kwabena Slaughter

Kwabena Slaughter is an artist, historian, and performing arts producer. He has an MFA in Studio Arts and is currently in the American Studies PhD program at George Washington University. His dissertation research is focussed on Booker T. Washington’s relationships with artists; such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and his daughter Portia Washington. Kwabena’s writings have been published in the Oxford Bibliography, the Journal of Popular Music Studies, and Philosophy and Social Action. His artwork is in museum and private collections in the U.S. and abroad.