African American Artists during the Twentieth Century
Henry Ossawa Tanner, Palace of Justice, Tangiers (c.1912–1913). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY
Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937) was the first painter of African American descent to gain widespread fame in both the United States and Europe. His work was displayed numerous times at the academic Paris Salons of the late 1800s and early 1900s where it won awards and was purchased by the French state. During the 1910s Tanner traveled throughout North Africa, spending time in Algeria and Morocco painting contemporary Bedouins and Muslims in local architectural settings. Many of his paintings from this period, with their close attention to issues of light and color, demonstrate Tanner's interest in Impressionism and other painterly methods of visual abstraction. While the subject matter of Palace of Justice, Tangiers at first appears to be the architectural setting in the background; the true content of the composition may actually lie in the figures in the right foreground. Here we see a man guiding a woman on horseback, recalling the biblical scene of the flight into Egypt, in which Joseph leads Mary and the baby Jesus to safety. This biblical theme would have been a natural for Tanner whose father was an archbishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.