Henry Ossawa Tanner and Gateway, Tangier

As the age-old adage goes, “Every painter paints himself.” Countless artists including Michelangelo, Raphael, Artemisia Gentileschi, Rembrandt, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, Marc Chagall, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, and even Lucien Freud have revealed as much. If painters paint themselves, then paintings say something of real consequence about their biographies.

The Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci also acknowledged that every work of art is an inevitable act of autobiography. People from antiquity on have regarded the artist’s identity as one of the most important facets of a piece of artwork. Beginning in Greco-Roman culture, the names of great artists have superseded the lives of their works — stories about the artists remained, even if the original works did not. This assumed an essential connection between an artist and her creation, founded on the belief that the life and character of the person were of utmost significance to the work.

The Western tradition imbues the artist with qualities of heroism. For centuries, little mattered more than society’s perception of the artist’s role and the essential romantic ideal of the creative self. The artist became a channel between the material and the immaterial, an avenue of divine inspiration. Historically, the artist’s life was just as lauded and cherished as her work. The intermingling of art and biography was an interweaving and mirroring of man and image — the act of creation being just as important as the art itself.

Accordingly, the biographical analysis went beyond visual and stylistic interpretations. Biography emphasized the artist’s life as an essential piece that provided further illumination of her body of work. It included anyone and anything that influenced an artwork — cultural and political background, religious upbringing, family life, training and education, stylistic and technical development – as well as the artist’s artistic philosophy, intent, and motivation for creating the work.

For an example of biography’s influence, one can look at the renowned African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). His canvases testify to his talent and remarkable development as a painter despite the social and political obstacles he faced. Originally from Philadelphia, Tanner studied art under the American Realist painter Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, then moved to Paris in 1891 to pursue his artistic career, believing he would be away from American society’s racial prejudice. Painting in Paris liberated him. While there, Tanner often traveled to the western coast of North Africa. Tangier, Morocco served as an inspiration and a beacon. It stirred him to paint people in distinct costume and to portray unique architecture, much like the French artists Henri Matisse and Eugène Delacroix. He found that it was the perfect location in which to experience the "rare influence of the sun, which gives penetrating light to all things."

Tangier had a positive and harmonious effect on his painting. There Tanner produced several small sketches, which he brought back to his Paris studio and translated into larger paintings on canvas. Gateway, Tangier (1912, now in the Saint Louis Museum) was but one example. In this painting, Tanner captured Morocco’s exotic patina. The biographical influences of travel, place, and an experience of greater freedom produced a stronger emphasis on color and color harmonies, with richly textured, luminous layers of paint. Tanner had found his voice.

The emphasis on biography in understanding art suggests that it is more than the physical work. It proposes that the creator can be found in her creation — that a work reveals something particular about the artist’s interior life. Biographers can survey artists’ lives as successions of beginnings and setbacks, actions and accomplishments, and reveal the flickers and hints of insight found in their drawings. An artist’s works are influenced by deliberate choices made in response to external events and internal stirrings. Gateway, Tangier was and is an ethereal, expressive work evocative of a heroic artist who rose above discrimination and pain to posit the opposite, a different gate. Through this painting, Henry Ossawa Tanner gave the world something it may not have merited from him, an insight into his humanity, his inner freedom, and his solemnity, through a radiantly beautiful and serene canvas.