Art & Design Magazine

Examining the Materials and Painting Methods of Henry Ossawa Tanner

By Americanart

American Art collaborated with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) to research the materials and techniques of American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) in preparation for a 2012 PAFA exhibition of Tanner's works titled, Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit. American Art's paintings conservator Amber Kerr-Allison tells us about the process.


Detail image of Henry O. Tanner's Head of a Jew in Palestine in normal and UV light. Conservators examined six paintings by Tanner using infrared, raking, and UV light, along with x-rays and technical analysis to determine the painter's materials and working methods.

Unveiling the complexity and construction of Tanner's paintings offers an intimate understanding of his artistic expression, visual acuity, and material formulations. His experimental use of materials and eccentric techniques are essential components of his works but may also be contributing to their deterioration. This unprecedented comparative study attempts to unlock some of the mysteries of Tanner's work and give clues to its present state of preservation.

The initial research focused on the technical examination of six paintings within American Art's collection dating from the turn of the twentieth century, when Tanner was a flourishing artist, to the end of his prolific career. Paint recipes from Tanner's journals retained in the Archives of American Art were reconstructed and compared to samples from the five paintings studied. The analysis is done by conservators at the Lunder Conservation Center, scientists at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute. This study will be the first scientific appraisal of Tanner's painting technique and will result in the first published conservation study of this artist.

Join American Art's me on May 19th for a gallery talk to learn more about the technical analysis performed on this project. A public lecture on this research was presented on January 21, 2011 and can be viewed as a webcast. For more information on Tanner's life and work take a look at our artist online site.

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