Henry Ossawa Tanner: The Thankful Poor

The Realist artistic movement also made its way to America. A well-known African American Realist painter is Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). Tanner first studied under another American Realist painter, Thomas Eakins, before moving to Paris. There, he mixed Eakins careful observation of nature with his desire to paint the dignity of ordinary people, especially since he was the son of a Pennsylvanian minister.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Thankful Poor, 1894

In The Thankful Poor, Tanner depicts a grandfather and a grandchild giving thanks before a meal. He focused on the people and the main objects in the room, painting them with great detail, while everything else blends in with the light and brushstrokes in the painting. The warm and expressive light that Tanner paints with helps to enhance the spiritual quality of the painting. The bright light shining on the young boy’s face illustrates the boy’s concentration, devotion, and thankfulness. Within a few years of painting The Thankful Poor, Tanner began painting even more religious scenes, often depicting biblical figures.

I really love this painting by Tanner. I can really feel the mood of quiet devotion that he sought to portray. To me, scenes of the poor giving thanks are always very touching and genuine. (To see another painting about the poor giving thanks, check out Saying Grace by Chardin.) And the light Tanner paints with reminds me of that of Rembrandt’s.

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