Exhibition presents new insights into the practice of Henry Ossawa Tanner
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Exhibition presents new insights into the practice of Henry Ossawa Tanner
Installation view of Focus On, Henry Ossawa Tanner. Courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art.



DALLAS, TX.- The Dallas Museum of Art will exhibit two works by Henry Ossawa Tanner, presenting discoveries from a recent comprehensive conservation treatment and technical study conducted by the DMA with generous support from the Art Bridges Foundation. The findings contribute new insights into the practice of the acclaimed American artist, including the evolution of Tanner’s techniques, his exploration of color theory, and abandoned compositions within the canvases. The exhibition pairs The Thankful Poor (1894), one of Tanner’s most famous early paintings, and Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures (about 1908), an exemplar of his signature blue palette and later religious subjects. Focus On: Henry Ossawa Tanner is on view beginning August 17, 2021, through January 2, 2022, and is included in free general admission. The study and presentation were overseen by Sue Canterbury, The Pauline Gill Sullivan Associate Curator of American Art, and Laura Eva Hartman, Paintings Conservator at the DMA.

“Through this partnership with Art Bridges, we greatly expand our understanding of two landmark works in our respective collections,” said Dr. Agustín Arteaga, the DMA’s Eugene McDermott Director. “Undertaking in-depth conservation analysis is an essential part of our commitment to studying and promoting the work of Black American artists. We are excited to provide our visitors a rare look underneath the surface and into an important artist’s working process.”

The Art Bridges Foundation is a private operating foundation whose mission is to increase access to American art across the U.S. Established by arts patron and philanthropist Alice Walton, Art Bridges supports museums of all sizes to provide collection loans, traveling exhibitions, multidisciplinary programming, and more in order to further connect museums and their local communities.

“The exhibition of Focus On: Henry Ossawa Tanner marks our second partnership with the DMA and we are excited for visitors to view this pair of remarkable paintings,” said Paul R. Provost, CEO, the Art Bridges Foundation. “The cultural significance and technical study findings of this pair make this a landmark occasion that we hope leaves audiences with a deeper understanding of American art.”

Born to a religious family, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937) trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and initially painted scenes depicting Black daily life. Due to extreme racism and the professional obstacles he faced in the U.S., Tanner moved to France while in his 30s and turned his focus toward biblical scenes, a theme from which he rarely strayed for the rest of his life and that established his legacy. The Thankful Poor, in the collection of the Art Bridges Foundation, is Tanner’s last known genre scene before he turned to painting biblical passages. Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures, in the DMA’s collection, illustrates Tanner’s devotion to his faith while also serving as a double portrait in subtle tribute to his wife and son, who were his models. The painting demonstrates the palette of cool blues Tanner often used; the color became synonymous with him.




From January to August 2021, Hartman studied and treated the two paintings from the early and mature phases of Tanner’s career, revealing both common threads and significant evolution in his practice.

• Tanner’s use of contrasting colors shows a deep understanding of color theory. Conservation treatment of The Thankful Poor revealed a range of previously undetectable paint colors, such as combinations of purples and oranges with blues and yellows. The later painting shows the same warm, dark foundation with the addition of brighter, cooler hues that became part of his hallmark style.

• Both canvases were originally used to begin other works. An abandoned version of The Young Sabot Maker (1895), in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, was found on the reverse of The Thankful Poor. X-radiography uncovered a completely different composition underneath Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures, showing two draped figures in a landscape.

• X-radiography showed compositional changes and refinements in The Thankful Poor, such as modifications to objects on the table and in the room, and adjustments to the child’s pose.

• Trained as an academic painter, Tanner would later push the limits of traditional techniques. The works showcase Tanner’s innovation in applying energetic brushwork while also sanding, scratching, and wiping paint to create unique surface effects.

“Being able to study both paintings was a true honor. Cleaning layers of darkened varnish from The Thankful Poor was especially significant, revealing a harmony that was previously obscured. Having time to study both paintings together also revealed common threads and pursued innovations, material information that speaks directly to Tanner’s profound knowledge of painting, showing his true hand as a highly skilled and brilliant artist,” said curator Sue Canterbury and conservator Laura Hartman.










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