Gateway, Tangier
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Henry Ossawa Tanner was rockin’ the casbah long before The Clash made it cool. 

By the end of the nineteenth century, Europe’s colonization of Africa was in full swing and the Orientalism art movement was thriving. Artists like Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Léon Gérôme turned to the East and to Africa for exotic subjects to depict and obsess over. Traveling to Africa and the Middle East, known at the time as the Orient, was the hot thing to do, so when Henry Ossawa Tanner was looking to diversify his artwork, jumping on the Orientalism bandwagon was the logical next step. However, Tanner, an African American expat and the son of a slave, must not have agreed with the exploitation and appropriation of the African and Asian people that was at the root of Orientalism. But money is a great motivator, and in 1897 when given the funds for an extravagant trip east, Tanner full heartedly accepted the opportunity. Who wouldn’t want a free vacation?

Fifteen years and countless trips to the Orient later, Tanner went on one of his most influential art retreats to Morocco. In 1912, Tanner, his wife, and Australian artist Hilda Rix Nicolas traveled to Tangier, a port city on the Strait of Gibraltar, to paint the Moroccan cityscape en plein air. A few days after the party arrived at their hotel, another artsy guest checked in for his own two-month stint in Morocco, the one and only Henri Matisse. Although there is no clear evidence that Tanner, Rix, and Matisse took in the grandeur of Tangier together, we can hope that at least one hotel room was trashed from an artist-only fête. 

During his time in Tangier, Tanner was especially drawn to the casbah, the old walled portion of the city. One of the gates to the casbah is seen in Gateway, Tangier. Tanner’s style of light blue tones and loose brushstrokes is on full display and turns the passageway into blocks of color and light. As in one of his most famous works Daniel in the Lions’ Den, Tanner uses a spotlight of sunshine to bring the viewer’s attention to a figure in his composition. However, unlike Daniel who has a defined nose, mouth, and eyes; the features of the main figure in Gateway, Tangier are blurred, with his only defining trait being the dark spot representing his face and race. This gives the figure anonymity and removes the opportunity for a viewer to judge the man and his culture. With works like Gateway, Tangier, Tanner separates himself from the traditional Orientalist artists and adopts a new “modern Orientalist” style that focuses on daily life and resists a European gaze. Tanner uses his artwork to take a stance against the exploits of Orientalism and colonialism, honoring his heritage as an African American. Not only was Tanner rockin’ the casbah in Tangier, he was also rockin’ the Western expectation of the Orient. Snaps to you, Tanner!



  1. Childs, Adrienne L. “Tanner and ‘Oriental’ Africa.” In Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit, edited by Anna O. Marley, 98-105. California: University of California Press, 2012.
  2. “Gateway, Tangier.” Saint Louis Art Museum. Accessed January 18, 2021.
  3. “Henry Ossawa Tanner: Biography.” National Gallery of Art. Accessed January 18, 2021.
  4. Hoorn, Jeanette. “Painting Portraits in Private: Hilda Rix Nicholas and Henri Matisse in Morocco.” Third Text 30, nos.1-2 (2016): 117-137. Accessed January 18, 2021.
  5. “Permanent Collection: Midday, Tangiers.” Cummer Museum. Accessed January 18, 2021.

Comments (2)


I love the used of light colors in this painting and how space is expressed in multiple ways.

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