Unsung Griots of American Painting
And He Disappeared out of Their Sight is the intriguing title of one of Henry Ossawa Tanner's paintings. I can't show it to you, because even though the Smithsonian owns it, no image is available online. Nonetheless, the title might well serve as the epitaph for the fate of many African American painters who worked in the years before the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960's. While these painters of the past century have not been exactly ignored, neither have they found a place in the popular imagination the way that other black artists have. Talents like Horace Pippin, Walter Ellison and Henry Tanner are largely unknown, and even Jacob Lawrence and Roman Bearden don't resonate with the public the way their colleagues -- Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and James Baldwin -- do in literature.
Yet anyone who wants to see how it was, to viscerally learn how Americans lived for the past 150 years, must go to these visual storytellers. And that is the point I want to stress in this article: Apart from every other challenge which these men faced as artists and as progressives, they had to overcome the prejudice against what is called "History painting".
History painting is defined by the Yale Dictionary of Art as "the representation of the noble, the exemplary deeds and vicissitudes of persons better than ourselves, figures from the Bible and the saints, but also pagan gods and heroes from ancient mythology". Such painting required intelligence and imagination combined with great craftsmanship, and because its aim was to elevate the hearts and minds of its audience, it was the most admired and honored genre of painting up until the late 19th century.
When Impressionism won over the art world, history painting already had lost its raison d'etre. Too many mediocre works, too many formulaic sermons and too many silly faux-classical images killed the genre. People no longer needed to see paintings of historical events; they had photographs and newspapers! The heroes of mythology and religion were no longer believable in modern times. Impressionism and the subsequent movements in art (Post Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, et al) have many wonderful objectives, but telling a story, honoring a hero or teaching a moral lesson are not among those aims.
Yet just as the genre of history painting was being consigned to the dustbin of history, the newly emancipated freemen rediscovered it and gave it new life. Horace Pippin, Walter Ellison and Jacob Lawrence turned to the despised and neglected genre in order to memorialize their people's long journey from slavery to freedom. They became, in Charlayne Hunter-Gault's fine phrase, the pictorial griot of [their] own African American community, griot being the African word for the village storyteller who passes on the history and tradition of his people.
Jacob Lawrence, one of the heroes of this piece, put it this way in 1940: I've always been interested in history, but they never taught Negro history in the public schools... I don't see how a history of the United States can be written honestly without including the Negro. Lawrence, the grand old man of American painting for over six decades, is right now undergoing a huge revival. He is finally reaching the large appreciative audience he truly deserves. But before discussing Lawrence, let me praise three less famous men...
Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) was born a year before the start of the Civil War, and at twenty-one was the first African American to study art at the Pennsylvania Academy, under the great Realist painter Thomas Eakins. Despite Tanner's undeniable talent he was unable to find an audience for his work in Post-Bellum America. Like many black artists, he had to move to Paris to be discovered by the French, then only later by his fellow citizens. Tanner won many awards, and at least one of his paintings hangs in the Musee D'Orsay alongside those of his peers.
A 1914 article on Tanner focused on his overcoming "ill-health, poverty and race prejudice". He responded, True -- this condition has driven me out of the country and while I cannot sing our National Hymn... still deep down in my heart I love it and am sometimes sad that I cannot live where my heart is.
We sometimes forget that many 19th century Americans, black and white, knew the Bible by heart. Thus at the turn of the century it was still possible to make a career as a religious painter (a form of history painting). Tanner's Two Disciples at the Tomb of Jesus is starkly unsentimental, an unsparing portrait of the two unlikely founders of Christianity, Peter and John, as they look into the empty tomb on Easter Sunday.
In his study for Mary, Return from the Crucifixion, Tanner's elegant line and delicate shading grazes perfection. These works finally found him an appreciative audience back in the United States.
Horace Pippin (1888-1946) was a self-taught artist who served in World War I. Like so many other soldiers he discovered his true vocation recuperating from a battlefield injury. Ironically the wound left his right hand paralyzed (click here for an amazing discussion of how Pippin painted after the injury).
When I was a boy I loved to make pictures, wrote Pippin, but it was World War I that "brought out all the art in me... I can never forget suffering and I will never forget sunset... so I came home with all of it in my mind and I paint from it today.
Pippin drew his themes from the Bible and from history, specifically the great figures of the Civil War. Painting the abolitionist John Brown and the Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln, he contributed in many ways to the artistic record of that time, the visual equivalent of the great poetry which the war inspired
His folk art caught the excellent eye of Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the founder and director of the newly established Museum of Modern Art. In 1938, four of Pippin's works were included in the Museum of Modern Art's Masters of Popular Painting exhibition. The Philadelphia collector Dr. Albert Barnes championed his work after seeing Pippin's solo exhibition in 1940. Pippin thus has the distinction of being the only African American artist represented in the world-famous Barnes Collection of Impressionist and Post Impressionist masterpieces, where his work hangs side by side with that of Matisse, Renoir and another self-taught master, Henri Rousseau.
It has been noted that while Pippin painted the life of the freeman in the Post-Bellum South, he avoiding painting the violent side of that life. Whatever his reasons, I find one of these portraits, Old Black Joe [left], especially noteworthy for its tender and philosophical aspects. As the Smithsonian American Art Museum puts it: Inspired by Stephen Foster's popular song, Horace Pippin shows a former slave who lives out his last years as part of a plantation's "extended family" after the Civil War. Tethering the past (in the guise of the man) to the future (in the form of the child), Pippin presents the complex aftermath of slavery with sensitivity, insight, and a touch of irony.
Walter Ellison (1899-1977). I doubt that many of my readers will have ever heard of Walter Ellison or seen one of his paintings. There is little information about him online except for the notes accompanying his Train Station [right] at the Art Institute of Chicago. Yet this is as good a painting as you are likely to see on the great theme of migration. Click on the title to view his wonderful painting and to hear a very fine appreciation of it by the curator at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Jacob Lawrence died in 2000 after six strenuous decades of painting and teaching. As Charlayne Hunter-Gault said in a PBS interview with the artist in 1996, as a teenager Jacob spent hours in a Harlem Public Library researching the history of his people. The biographies of heroic, larger than life figures, especially revolutionaries, captured his imagination. In 1937 he translated into a sequence of paintings about the late 18th century liberator of Haiti Toussaint L'Overture. More history paintings followed, with a series on the life of Frederick Douglas, the great orator and statesman, and one on Harriet Tubman.
The Migration of the Negro, a series of sixty paintings completed when he was twenty-four, was his breakthrough work. Turning his attentions to the extraordinary story of how ordinary blacks had made the journey from the rural South to the urban North earned him the attention and admiration of the largely white "downtown audience" at MOMA. America was changing, especially in its attitude toward homegrown artists. Alfred Barr selected the young Lawrence for one of the first solo exhibits of an American artist.
During the last 20 years of his life, Lawrence created a whole new series, which he referred to as his "builder" paintings. These works show men and women, black and white, working together in a world devoted to construction, not destruction.
Now his rich body of work is being used to teach today's students how America looked through the eyes of a black artist. His unshakeable convictions about the importance of art and history are now accessible online at the Jacob Lawrence Virtual Archive and Education Center.
Black History Month 2002 is an excellent time to study some of these unsung or forgotten masters. For a brief overview of these and several other exemplary artists and their work, see these online exhibits:
Let Jacob Lawrence have the last words:
I'd like [people] to experience the beauty of life, the struggle, how people can overcome certain things that could be very frustrating or very demeaning. And [that] people have the capacity to overcome these obstacles by various means, and this is an example of that. And I'd like the people to look, feel, "look, this is me. This is mankind or womankind." And I'm talking about people in general, and I would like it to be a universal statement. That's how I feel.
This article is copyrighted 2002. Please do not republish any portion of this article without written permission.
Joseph Phelan can be contacted at email@example.com
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