Mystic Stories From The Sketchbooks of Henry Ossawa Tanner

A stamp printed in the USA shows Henry Ossawa Tanner portrait, American Painter, circa 1973 (Shutterstock)

In addition to making paintings, Henry Ossawa Tanner also expressed his creativity by writing stories. Most of them sit silently in his sketchbooks, which are currently held at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art (AAA). Some of his stories were published. The issue I want to address in this essay is that Tanner wrote––in his sketchbooks––other versions of the published stories, which have a surprisingly different voice and personality than has ever been addressed in the historical biographies of his life and art.

In 1898 the African Methodist Episcopal Church Review published an article that Tanner wrote about his trip to the town of Bethany, near Jerusalem, to visit the Tomb of Lazarus. His visit was motivated by the painting he’d made a few years earlier, The Resurrection of Lazarus (1896). In the Gospel of John it is said that Lazarus, a follower of Jesus, became ill and died. Four days had passed by the time that Jesus arrived at the tomb where Lazarus had been laying. Jesus performed his role as the Messiah by resurrecting Lazarus. Tanner had studied this story extensively and traveled to the site of the resurrection to see it in person.

In his published article, “A Visit to the Tomb of Lazarus”, Tanner discusses the local people’s rigid categorization of him as a Christian, which meant it was entirely appropriate for him to be treated as a “legitimate victim” by those who pestered him for “backsheesh” (small sums of money given as a tip, bribe, or donation). The process of the locals leading him to the tomb included being passed along from one person requesting backsheesh, to another requesting backsheesh, to another and another, ad nauseam.

A smiling Arab, with small tapers and a large stout stick, comes forth. The stick is whirled in the air, the crowd disperses (not disappears)–you are saved. They will soon reassemble upon your return to daylight. … The tomb is reached by a descent of twenty or more slippery, worn, and, of course, dirty steps.

The Moslems regard Lazarus as a saint, and have erected a mosque over the place of his burial. Christians are, of course, forbidden to enter this mosque, and thus the steps (made in the 16th century) down which we have entered, are accounted for. In fact, there is now, I believe, no entrance from the mosque. The stairway leads to a small, square, ante-chamber. Turn to your left through a doorway, and you are in the tomb proper, which is made to hold three of four bodies. On the East side is possibly the original entrance, now walled up. The tomb is high enough to stand upright in, and is cut in the solid rock and lined with masonry. It is large enough to hold quite a company.1  

Also present in Tanner’s now digitized sketchbooks is another version of his story of visiting the tomb. Its handwritten penmanship, and its presence amongst his letters and drawings gives a strong indication that this was indeed written by Tanner himself, even though its narrative style is different from the published version. The beginning portion of the story (as I transcribed in from Tanner’s cursive writing) is presented here:

Be careful Sahid* those are cranky old stairs — it was too late, but I had only a little shaking up and no serious damage. Yes said I those stairs were not made by a modern stair builder. In fact they had never been made only worn step by each individual stepping in the same spot. This had made a very slippery stairs if you like — and I had not liked them, at least the fall — but would they never end. One grew tired going around and around. “Here we are” said the same voice coming from a brown little body more like a bronze than our idea of flesh and blood — but the voice was so warm and cheery, that it tended to make one happy, though I was already happy, very happy — why you will see later.

These two versions of the story both indicate a linguistic interaction with the local people: arguing over “backsheesh”, being referred to as Sahid after falling down the stairs. In both documents, over the course of their full text the metaphor of blood is used to refer to the siphoning of the money of Christian visitors, and as the essence of a person. And both documents acknowledge the troubling experience of walking down the ancient staircase. The published article is much more conservative. Tanner makes us aware of frustrations that he experienced, but he takes very little embodiment onto himself. It’s always the local’s behavior and the local’s words. Tanner’s assertion of his spiritual commitment is expressed as a logical acceptance of history, “we accept it for what we have known it to be for at least seven or eight centuries–the tomb of Lazarus.”2 The interiority and embodiment expressed in his unpublished writings can be seen on the second page of his three-page letter about this visit.

 [I] lifted myself up and began to examine again the beautiful walls. Never had I ever seen such a gorgeous inlaying. Walking back to get the large effect I was surprised to see my three old, weathered keepers and young guide kneeling on the ground beside the prostrate figure of a European. … As I approached my astonishment was increased. He had a suit on exactly as my own, his hat laying not far away was exactly like mine, and Heaven! His features were mine! I could not imagine anything more like myself.

In this story a mystic appearance occurs. Tanner encounters another person who is of his own likeness. This appearance of oneself, and the continual references in his writings to magical things that become available to the eye as a result of light and illumination, can be interpreted as influential to the association of light with divinity, as it occurs in many of Tanner’s paintings. The Annunciation (1898), The Resurrection of Lazarus (1896), And He Vanished Out of Their Sight (1898); in these and in many of Tanner’s other works a character goes down into an enclosed space, and the sudden appearance of light leads them to an expansive physical, theoretical, and spiritual space. Tanner’s writings imply that this has been the nature of his own experience in life and/or his own dreams.

Upon encountering these writings, what are we to interpret about Tanner’s personality and his way of thinking? This is a more active physical and mental engagement than fits into the stereotype of the painter sitting quietly alone in their studio. These stories of visiting the tomb of Lazarus are only the tip of the iceberg.

*Sahid is an Arabic word with multiple meanings: including “Sir”, “witness”, and “martyr”.

  1. Tanner, H. O., “A Visit to the Tomb of Lazarus”. African Methodist Episcopal Church Review. vol.15 Jan 1898. 360.
  2. Tanner. “Lazarus”. 361.
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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.