‘So you need to go back to the main entrance of the museum and then up the great stairs; then make a left and head through the Prints and Drawings area; make another left … keep walking until you hit the American Art section. You should find it towards the end.’

I hurriedly make my way up the great stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I can feel my heart beat faster as I whiz past countless paintings, prints, sculptures and furniture along the way. In one room and out another, zipping past the special exhibition galleries to the American Art section, side-stepping tourists as I go.

Finally, I reach the last room of the American Art section. And there it is, hanging on the wall of the dimly-lit room: Henry Ossawa Tanner’s beloved Annunciation. It’s beautiful.

I barely notice how long I’ve been standing there until I hear footsteps nearby. It’s one of the guards, doing his usual rounds. He slowly walks past, with a slightly quizzical look on his face. He’s probably wondering why I’ve been standing for so long when there’s a perfectly comfortable bench nearby. I sit down and take in Tanner’s piece.

The young woman in the painting is seated on the edge of her bed, looking as if she’s just been woken from her sleep. The bedsheets and floor rug are crumpled, and her feet are bare. This is Mary. We are not accustomed to seeing her like this. Her hands are clasped and her face is tilted towards a bright light coming from the corner of the room. That’s the angel Gabriel. We are not accustomed to seeing him like that either.

Annunciation Philadelphia Museum
The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1898), Philadelphia Museum of Art

Painted in 1897, Tanner’s Annunciation is strikingly different to other depictions. When we imagine the angel visiting Mary, what typically comes to mind is what the early iconographers or Renaissance painters offered us—a young woman with a halo, adorned with blue and gold robes, usually weaving or reading the scriptures in the garden or on the veranda. The Mary we are familiar with doesn’t ordinarily display such a curious look on her face and she certainly is not without footwear!

The woman in this painting is not overtly European; she is Jewish. Her clothing is simple and she is unadorned. Her room is sparse, save for three vases and a blue garment in the foreground. Art historians hypothesise that the vases symbolise Mary’s role as the vessel through which God becomes man. Perhaps the blue garment is a hint at the Queenship to come.

It is probably the sheer ‘ordinariness’ of Tanner’s Annunciation that has captured imaginations over the years. For in this painting, Mary represents any one of us: awoken in the night by warm, bright light and naturally curious as to what it represents.

Tanner painted the Annunciation following one of his trips to the Holy Land, where he was inspired by the local culture, the people, the natural environment and the domesticity of life. He entered the piece in an exhibit at the Paris Salon in 1898. A year later it was purchased by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, making it the first work by an African-American artist to join the Museum’s collection.

Annunciation wasn’t Tanner’s only taste of success, but sadly it also wasn’t the breakthrough the artist might have hoped for in his home country.

A native of Philadelphia, Tanner was the son of Benjamin Tanner, a well-educated minister in the African Methodist Episcopalian Church, and Sarah Miller Tanner, a former slave who travelled through the Underground Railway to find freedom up north. As a young adult he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where he excelled under the tutelage of Realist painter Thomas Eakins.

As a working artist, Tanner tried his luck at combining art and business, but this yielded little success. It wasn’t until the patronage of a prominent white couple, Bishop Joseph Hartzell and his wife Jennie, who actively campaigned for the rights of African-Americans, that Tanner was able to raise enough funds to travel to Europe and join the more inclusive arts scene. In Paris, Tanner became recognised as a leading American artist, exhibiting his work in the Paris Salon and winning prizes for his paintings of Daniel in the lion’s den and the resurrection of Lazarus.

Tanner returned to the US briefly in 1893, but the deep racial issues proved too much for him and he eventually settled in France with his white-American wife Jessie Olsen and their only son. His work continued to receive praise, and in 1923 he was made an honorary chevalier of the Order of the Legion of Honour, France’s highest honour. He also became the first African-American member of the National Academy of Design in 1927.

‘In Paris … no one regards me curiously,' Tanner once said.

'I am simply “M Tanner, an American artist”. Nobody knows nor cares what was the complexion of my forebears. I live and work there on terms of absolute social equality. Questions of race or color are not considered—a man’s professional skill and social qualities are fairly and ungrudgingly recognized.'

It is with these words in mind that I stare at Tanner’s painting of the Annunciation with an even deeper sense of appreciation. For it is a happy coincidence that both the artist and his subject were—regardless of race or status—chosen for a higher purpose and entrusted with their respective gifts. Their ‘yes’—one as mother and the other as artist—defied the norm and has thus enabled countless generations to access the wonder and mystery of God.

This article was originally published in the October 2018 edition of Melbourne Catholic.