Virgin Mary and Electricity

A Contemplation on Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Painting ‘The Annunciation’

Issue – December 2012
By Elena Ivanova 

“My effort has been to not only put the Biblical incident in the original setting, but at the same time give the human touch ‘which makes the whole world kin’1 and which ever remains the same.”
— Henry Ossawa Tanner

For visitors of the Salon exhibition in Paris in 1898, the painting titled “The Annunciation,” by American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, must have looked unusual, revelatory or even disturbing and blasphemous. Nothing in this work reminded them of the popular biblical subject, at least not in the way it had been portrayed since the Renaissance: no golden-winged angel, no ethereally beautiful Madonna, no haloes, no luscious display of textures and rich garments. In fact, if it were not for the title, one may not have guessed that the scene portrayed the Virgin Mary at the moment she is visited by archangel Gabriel.

Tanner - The Annunciation

Henry Ossawa Tanner, “The Annunciation,” 1898, oil on canvas
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, purchased with the W.P. Wilstach Fund, 1899, W1899-1-1.

Tanner’s work looks like an ordinary domestic scene. A young woman is sitting up in bed among crumpled sheets as if awakened by a sudden noise. A few details in the interior point to the possible middle-eastern location of the scene — a low vaulted ceiling, a patterned mat on the paved floor, a striped carpet pinned to the wall, and ceramic jugs on a shelf. The only extraordinary thing in this otherwise unremarkable place is a beam of blinding light, which has no obvious source and which seems to have hypnotized the occupant of the humble dwelling.

Today, having seen lots of movies in which biblical characters look and act like ordinary people, we may find it hard to understand what was so radical about this idea a hundred years ago. However, even in our more open-minded society, not everyone accepts such movies as Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” or Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” in which Jesus appears to be too much like a vulnerable human being. In a similar way, Tanner’s emphasis on the ordinary while portraying a sacred event could be interpreted as subversive by devout Christians of his time.

What do we know about Henry Ossawa Tanner? Born and raised in Philadelphia in the family of a prominent African Methodist Episcopal bishop, Tanner was the first African American artist to achieve international fame. He studied with Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and later at the Académie Julian in Paris. Having settled in France, where society was more open to the idea of racial diversity than in America, he became an influential figure among expatriate American artists. The French government bestowed upon him the highest accolades: he was elected Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur and his paintings were acquired by the state.

Tanner chose to follow the path of religious painting early in his career. He felt a strong kinship with painters of religious subjects from the past, particularly with Rembrandt. His desire was to find a modern artistic language which would enable him to express what he considered the most important about religious experience — “a unity in human aspirations and revealed faith.”

Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner

Like the majority of religious genre artists of his time, Tanner believed that it was important to be historically and ethnographically accurate when painting biblical scenes. He traveled to Palestine where he tirelessly recorded the landscape, the people and the material culture of the land of the Bible. At the same time, he was not nostalgic about the past. He was a modern man who was excited about new developments in science and technology. In art, he embraced innovation without breaking away from the great realistic tradition of West-European art.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the world was rapidly changing, with discoveries in physics, chemistry, biology and psychology replacing old assumptions about man and nature based on religious beliefs. Tanner, however, never doubted that faith would continue to play an important role in the new century. The question that he pondered was how to express the divine in his art in a way that would be consistent with the contemporaneous world.

In “The Annunciation,” Tanner offers an astounding example of marriage between religious experience and science. The beam of light which signifies the presence of the divine evokes Nikola Tesla’s experiments with electricity. In the late 1880s-early 1890s, Tesla traveled extensively presenting lectures in Europe and America demonstrating the capabilities of electric current. When Tanner exhibited his work at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 he could not have missed the largest demonstration of all: the whole fair was illuminated through the first use of the alternating current device.

Parisians looking at “The Annunciation” in 1898 were likely to make a connection with Tesla’s electricity demonstrations and, consequently, to relate Tanner’s work to the ongoing debate about the natural and the supernatural. They probably had another association — with performances of “la fée électrique,” by the American dancer Loïe Fuller. Fuller designed a special “underlighting” device which dramatically illuminated her body from beneath as she danced on the dark stage. Tanner could have seen Fuller’s performance either in Paris or at the Chicago World’s Fair. He recorded his impressions in the painting titled “Salome,” which evokes the title of one of Fuller’s dances.

Given the public’s fascination with electricity and his own preoccupation with conveying the idea of the divine, it may seem odd that Tanner did not give a more prominent place to the beam of light in his composition, but chose to push it to the edge of the painting, almost off the canvas. However, upon further consideration, one understands his reason for giving the central place to Mary, her face ablaze with the reflected light from the mysterious source. Tanner probably observed such intense, unblinking gaze on the faces of spectators watching Tesla’s demonstration or Fuller’s dance. True to his artistic credo to “give the human touch ‘which makes the whole world kin’ and which ever remains the same,” Tanner invites us to share Mary’s emotions and maybe, through this experience, to come closer to understanding the spiritual message of his painting.

The exhibition “Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit” is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, through Jan. 13. The exhibition is a survey of more than 100 works, including 12 paintings that have never been shown in a Tanner retrospective, as well as the only two known sculptures that Tanner completed.

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1 The quotation comes from Shakespeare’s tragedy “Troilus and Cressida.” In general usage this expression means that the show of a fundamental human emotion often has the effect of bringing people closer together.