Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Resurrection of Lazarus, 1896, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
We last saw Henry Ossawa Tanner painting a genre scene, The Banjo Lesson, in Picture Of The Day 81. Painted in 1893 during one of his few returns to the States after he had settled in France in 1891, he took it back with him to Paris, where it was accepted for exhibition at the annual Salon of 1894. This marked the beginning of his success, although, as yet, he was effectively unknown. The following year, two more genre paintings were accepted, but it was with Daniel in the Lion’s Den, painted in 1895 and exhibited the following year, that he really made his mark: Daniel was awarded an honourable mention by the jury.
That year, 1896, he painted The Resurrection of Lazarus, which, yet again, was exhibited the following year, as was the fashion. The Salon jury awarded it a third-class medal, and it was purchased by the French government for the Musée de Luxembourg, which, at the time, was the national collection of modern art: it is now in the Musée d’Orsay. Tanner had arrived. He was effectively the most successful American artist of his time in Paris.
The story of the resurrection of Lazarus is told in John 11:1-44 – I’ll just quote 38-44 below. He was the brother of Martha and Mary, friends of Jesus, and when he was sick, they sent for their friend. However, by the time Jesus got there Lazarus was already dead. Martha went out to meet him first, followed by Mary, who, when she saw him, ‘fell down at his feet’. Jesus asked, ‘Where have ye laid him?’ and was taken to the grave:
It was a cave, and a stone lay upon it. Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days. Jesus saith unto her, Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God? Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid. And Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me. And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.
When we look at Tanner’s depiction of the story, it does not worry too much about the details of the text, apart from taking place in ‘a cave’. Jesus stands looking over the grave, which is dug into the ground and lined with white material, in excess of any standard shroud. Rather than ‘coming forth’, Lazarus is just managing to sit up, his left arm tense, the fingers and wrist arched, resting on the side of the grave, while his right rests on his chest. He eyes are open, but his facial expression is fixed, staring forward – what else would you do under the circumstances? He is tended to by an old man, who could easily be a hermit, presumably one of the people Jesus instructed to ‘Loose him, and let him go’ – in which case, the ‘napkin’ around his face has already been removed.
The roof of the cave is propped up by a number of posts – there is one behind the ‘hermit’, and another two on the left of the painting, which frame our view. At the base of these two posts are what could be the stones ‘laying upon’ the tomb – although in the background, behind the right of the two posts, and above the heads of the crowd who have followed Jesus, Mary and Martha into the tomb, we can see light coming from the mouth of the cave, the sort of opening that could have had a stone rolled in front of it. Jesus’s gesture is not grand, or dramatic, but contains its own humility – the arms held slightly out, the hands almost pointing, almost ready to accept Lazarus, as he looks down towards him.
Mary and Martha kneel on either side of Jesus. My guess is that the figure on our right is Martha, looking up towards him, calm and dutiful, whereas the grief-stricken figure, head in hands, is Mary. Both have ‘fallen down at his feet’, although the text only suggests that Mary did this – but that was before they had got to the tomb anyway. However, it was at that point that ‘Jesus saw her weeping’. Mary weeps often in the New Testament – it is one of the things that defines her. And if anyone who knows either of the Magdalene Colleges (Oxford or Cambridge, although I’m sure there are others) and wonders why they are pronounced Maudlin, it is the same word. ‘Maudlin’, meaning miserable comes from the medieval French version of ‘Magdalene’ – it’s not so far from Madeleine – and derives from images of the Magdalene weeping. Plus there is the hair, which is scrunched up on either side of her head, between her hands, in Tanner’s image, but we should talk about the Magdalene’s hair another day. There is no sign of the smell, something which many artists were careful to portray. As we shall see on Saturday, Giotto makes it quite visible.
All these thing aside, this is a very unconventional portrayal of the subject, and very different from the version we will see on Saturday. But then Tanner’s upbringing didn’t incline him to ‘traditional’ religious art. His father, Benjamin Tanner, was a minister, and then a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and had wanted his son Henry to go into the ministry. Having realised that this would not happen, he welcomed the change in direction of his son’s career as an artist, from painting genre scenes, to biblical narratives, as he was fully aware of the power of art. As he himself said,
By the presentation of visible objects to the eye, divine truths may be most vividly photographed upon the soul… In representation man does not, like the great Originator, create his own fiat, his world of mental objects. What he reproduces or constructs anew is in some way dependent upon what he has personally experienced.
If Henry did not want to preach, he could still minister through his art. Henry himself was dubious about the quality of much religious painting, if not downright damning:
It has very often seemed to me that many painters of religious subjects (in our time) seem to forget that their pictures should be as much works of art (regardless of the subject) as are other paintings with less holy subject… There is more ‘bogus’ sentiment in poor pictures – pictures in which the artist has tried to convince the world that nothing else was necessary – because he has nothing else to give. Religious art has come to mean an uninteresting, inartistic production. Who is to blame that this is true? The large number of painters of very mediocre attainment… have painted religious pictures because they have found that the selection of such subjects has enabled them to draw more attention to themselves than would their mediocre rendering of any other subject.
Some more cynical critics have suggested that Tanner had done just that. The genre paintings that were accepted in the Salons of 1894 and 1895 did not get him known: ‘History Painting’ – i.e. the depiction of important narratives – was how you made your mark, and it was how he made his. Although his father may have welcomed the development, not everyone did. Members of the black community regretted his decision to move away from African American subject matter, as seen in paintings like The Banjo Player (POTD 81). However, his approach was more subtle. In some way’s Tanner’s interpretation of Lazarus is not so very far from some of Michelangelo’s ideas on the tomb of Julius II, not that I think this was necessarily Tanner’s intention. It is interesting, but probably coincidental, that the Louvre, in Paris (where Tanner spent most of his adult life) is home to Michelangelo’s Dying and Rebellious Slaves. One interpretation of these is that they represent the human soul, enslaved to the body. For Tanner, Lazarus has been a slave to death – and now he is free. As a result, some critics relate Tanner’s interest in the story of the Resurrection of Lazarus to the end of slavery in the United States (the Emancipation Proclamation took place in 1863) . Others suggest it has a more personal significance – that Tanner himself was effectively returning to Jesus, he was ‘born again’ if you like, like Lazarus – and indeed, he wrote a letter to his parents in 1896 expressing his guilt abut his distance from the church.
But had he really moved so far from the idea of genre painting, one description of which would be ‘normal people doing normal things’? I’m not so sure. His biblical paintings are framed as if they are totally normal – no grandiloquent gestures, no superhuman, idealised people – just normal people doing normal things. Not the blonde-haired blue-eyed Jesus you might see in so much Western art, but someone who could so easily be from the Middle East.
And if we look among the crowd, it is a remarkably mixed group, a black man prominent among them. It suggests he is interested in a more universal, multicultural message. This would certainly fit in with his father’s own preaching, a good case in point being Bishop Tanner’s interpretation of the famous passage in Isaiah 11:6:
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
In one of his sermons, Bishop Tanner suggested that this statement prophesied a time when, ‘men of all races, nations, and communities shall show how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity’. This crowd, unified in it’s astonishment, would seem to embody this very idea.
The one mysterious feature of the painting, not immediately apparent as such, is the lighting. If the mouth of the cave is in the far background, where is all the light in the foreground coming from? If you look at the way all of the people in the crowd are lit, you can only come to one conclusion: it is coming from the grave itself. This miraculous glow, a creamy light in the darkness, is a key feature in the palette of one very particular western European artist, whose chromatic and tonal range stretches from creams, through gold to the deepest browns and black: Rembrandt van Rijn.
Indeed, it is a painting by Rembrandt which is closest to Tanner’s conception of the work. Painted around 1630-32, it is relatively early, and so does not use the archetypal Rembrandt palette. It is now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but I’d love to know where it was in 1896, because the man who bequeathed it to LACMA hadn’t been born then. I don’t know if Tanner knew it. But with Lazarus just managing to sit up, Christ standing above him, the apex of a pyramid formed with the two sisters on either side, it is remarkably similar. One day soon the libraries will open, and I might be able to find out.