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Mystic Stories From The Sketchbooks of Henry Ossawa Tanner


Mystic Stories From The Sketchbooks of Henry Ossawa Tanner

A stamp printed in the USA shows Henry Ossawa Tanner portrait, American Painter, circa 1973 (Shutterstock)

In addition to making paintings, Henry Ossawa Tanner also expressed his creativity by writing stories. Most of them sit silently in his sketchbooks, which are currently held at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art (AAA). Some of his stories were published. The issue I want to address in this essay is that Tanner wrote––in his sketchbooks––other versions of the published stories, which have a surprisingly different voice and personality than has ever been addressed in the historical biographies of his life and art.

In 1898 the African Methodist Episcopal Church Review published an article that Tanner wrote about his trip to the town of Bethany, near Jerusalem, to visit the Tomb of Lazarus. His visit was motivated by the painting he’d made a few years earlier, The Resurrection of Lazarus (1896). In the Gospel of John it is said that Lazarus, a follower of Jesus, became ill and died. Four days had passed by the time that Jesus arrived at the tomb where Lazarus had been laying. Jesus performed his role as the Messiah by resurrecting Lazarus. Tanner had studied this story extensively and traveled to the site of the resurrection to see it in person.

In his published article, “A Visit to the Tomb of Lazarus”, Tanner discusses the local people’s rigid categorization of him as a Christian, which meant it was entirely appropriate for him to be treated as a “legitimate victim” by those who pestered him for “backsheesh” (small sums of money given as a tip, bribe, or donation). The process of the locals leading him to the tomb included being passed along from one person requesting backsheesh, to another requesting backsheesh, to another and another, ad nauseam.

A smiling Arab, with small tapers and a large stout stick, comes forth. The stick is whirled in the air, the crowd disperses (not disappears)–you are saved. They will soon reassemble upon your return to daylight. … The tomb is reached by a descent of twenty or more slippery, worn, and, of course, dirty steps.


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