This lyrical and evocative landscape is probably the first major painting of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s early maturity, and may have been exhibited soon after completion at both the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the National Academy of Design in New York. It may also mark the culmination of his formal study with Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy. For although it is often said that Tanner entered the academy when he was 20 or 21 (1879 or 1880) and remained there sporadically until 1885, the Academy’s own records indicate that he “studied at the Academy in 1884 and 1885, having been admitted to the school by Eakins’s special request.”1 Early in 1886 Thomas Eakins was forced to resign his teaching position and Tanner opened his own studio in Philadelphia.
Sand Dunes is constructed with a bold sweep of windblown beach bordered by rising dunes. Remarkably, where sand is depicted, the artist actually mixed sand into his pigments to emulate the texture.2 The viewpoint is that of an isolated stroller on the lonely strand, walking in the shallow trough toward the water’s edge. The water is only glimpsed ahead in calm, low rollers breaking on the beach, the ocean just a sliver below the dusky sky. It is the dunescape itself that mimics the ocean’s eternal motion.3 In the scrubby vegetation Tanner captures exactly the permanently windbent attitude of the hardy clumps of sea grass that rhythmically stud the sand. The band of cool gray-green shadow that divides the picture seems to echo the movement of the unfelt wind. The sun (out of the picture at the right: we are facing east) tinges the sky with a rosy glow, and the moon rises through the haze of approaching evening.
Tanner’s painting is strikingly original. But in its serenity it is in harmony with the work of other American landscape artists in the post-Civil War decades, from the once-famous Alexander Harrison to the still-famous McNeill Whistler, whose paintings evoked a contemplative timelessness. In particular it has a general resemblance to the work of the older Philadelphia artist William Trost Richards who, while dividing his time between Europe and the Philadelphia area during Tanner’s Philadelphia years, exhibited regularly at the Pennsylvania Academy. Elements of composition and tonal expression, from the cupped landscape to the broad bands of shadow to the hazy moon, may be found in Richards’s paintings as in Tanner’s Sand Dunes.
It should also be recalled that Eakins had been painting landscapes along the Delaware River in the early 1880s. The older artist had been experimenting intensely with photography, and had used the process in producing his landscape paintings. There is no evidence that Tanner emulated his teacher in his own landscape painting, but he probably had studied photography under Eakins’s informal guidance. For although Eakins was not permitted to teach photography or integrate it into his teaching at the Academy, when Tanner left Philadelphia for Atlanta, Georgia, in 1889, it was to set up a photographic portrait studio. Eakins himself had begun photographing his sitters in the mid-1880s, as an aid in painting their portraits.
Henry Ossawa Tanner’s mother was born a slave and escaped north through the Underground Railroad. His father was a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Their son’s unusual middle name was bestowed in honor of the abolitionist John Brown, whose militancy had begun in Osawatomie, Kansas. To further his art and to escape racism, Henry Tanner moved to Paris in 1891, where he was to receive many honors. His expatriatism was not without bitterness: “[Racism] has driven me out of the country and while I cannot sing our National Hymn . . . still deep down in my heart I love it and am sometimes sad that I cannot live where my heart is.” His heart was a meditative one, tinged with melancholy. Although he is widely known for the religious images that he began to paint in the mid-1890s, Sand Dunes in its profound quietude is as reverential and as memorable as those more overtly sacred scenes.
Essay by William Kloss, Art in the White House, 2nd edition (Washington, DC: White House Historical Association, 2008), 192. Copyright © 2008 by White House Historical Association.
1 Dewey F. Mosby, Across Continents and Cultures: The Art and Life of Henry Ossawa Tanner (Kansas City: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 1995), p. 24, believed it was the picture shown at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1885 and the National Academy in 1886 as Back from the Beach. Louise Lippincott, “Thomas Eakins and the Academy,” In This Academy (Philadelphia: The Pennsylvania Academy, 1976), p. 182, clarified Tanner’s study at PAFA.
2 The sand in the painting was noted in a 1988 examination report at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, prior to restoration (files, Office of the Curator, the White House). It is quite unlikely, however, especially given the size of the painting, that he actually painted it on the beach and that the sand blew onto the canvas, as has been suggested. Rather, he would have carried some sand to his studio, working it into his pigments there. It might have been painted in the cottage that his parents often rented at Atlantic City during the summer months. Tanner gave the painting to them.
3 Other artists have observed and recorded the same role-reversal of ocean and dune, for example William Merritt Chase in the White House collection’s Shinnecock Hills, Long Island.