Henry Ossawa Tanner

Jun 27th, 2011 | By | Category: Painting & Sculpture
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Henry Ossawa Tanner1859-1937 Henry Ossawa Tanner was the preeminent black artist of the 19th century, and the first African American painter to be recognized internationally as a master in the Naturalist traditions of American art. He found his true vision, and recognition, only after journeying to Paris to live and work, and ultimately to the Holy Land for his best-known depictions of Biblical scenes in a more allegorical genre. He set an example for generations of black creators with his desire not to be “…one of your everyday kind of artists….”

Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on June 21, 1859, to Benjamin Tucker Tanner (an African Methodist Episcopal minister) and Sarah Miller Tanner (a former slave who arrived in Pennsylvania via the Underground Railroad). His middle name was an adaptation of Osawatomie, where the white militant John Brown had launched his abolitionist campaign in 1856. Tanner’s father would eventually become a bishop in the church, but during his childhood, the family moved often to new school and church assignments. They finally settled in Philadelphia in 1864. During a walk with his father in the city’s Fairmont Park at age 13, Tanner observed an artist at work and immediately decided on his future career. He drew and painted on his own over the next few years, visited the city’s galleries, and studied briefly with two Philadelphia painters.

An Artist’s Struggle

Bishop Tanner attempted to discourage his son’s artistic pursuits by apprenticing him to a miller. Tanner’s frail health and constitution couldn’t withstand the flourmill conditions. Recuperating over the next several years, he was allowed to paint at home, and began his first landscape works on visits to the Adirondack Mountains. At age 21 in 1880, Tanner entered the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where he would study with a series of master painters. Thomas Eakins, dean of the American Naturalist School of painting, would prove to have the strongest influence on Tanner’s evolving style.

Before graduating, Tanner left school to develop a commercial practice capable of supporting him and his art. He relocated to Atlanta, where he ran a small gallery selling his photographs and drawings, and taught classes at Clark College. These activities failed to support him, but he was fortunate to receive the patronage of Bishop and Mrs. Joseph Crane Hartzell. Tanner sold the gallery in 1888 and spent that summer and fall in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, protecting his frail health and immersing himself more fully in his art. The local black population may have served as the inspiration for his later depictions of rural African Americans.

Returning to Atlanta that fall, he taught again at Clark College for two years, and then decided to travel to Rome to paint and study. The Hartzells arranged an exhibition of his work in 1890, and bought the entire show themselves when no other purchasers came forward. This enabled Tanner to depart for Europe in January of 1891, sailing first for England, with short stays in Liverpool and London, and then on to France.

He was immediately taken with Paris. Freed from the prejudice he’d encountered in the United States, and liberated by the experience of being judged solely on the quality of his work, he abandoned his plan to reach Rome. Enrolling in Paris’ Academie Julian, he studied with Jean Paul Laurens and Jean Joseph Benjamin-Constant, among others. He created his two most revered works of African American subjects during this period: “The Banjo Lesson” (1893) and “The Thankful Poor” (1894). His depictions of humble Blacks are now widely regarded as classic portrayals of African American dignity and narrative sympathy. Traveling in Brittany in the summers of 1892 and 1893, he produced equally strong works featuring French rural peasants.

Succeeding with Recognition

Recognition swiftly followed. Tanner’s “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” won honorable mention in the Paris Salon of 1895. His “Resurrection of Lazarus” of 1897 persuaded Philadelphia merchant and Paris resident Rodman Wanamaker to subsidize Tanner’s first trip to the Holy Land. “Lazarus” then won a third class medal at the Paris Salon, and the French government purchased the painting for the Luxembourg Gallery and the permanent collection of the Louvre. In the artist’s words: “…my effort has been not only to put the Biblical incident in the original setting… but at the same time give the human touch which makes the whole world kin….”

Buoyed by this recognition, Tanner returned to Philadelphia. But he felt constrained by the racial prejudice of the era. He returned to Paris, and married a white opera singer from San Francisco, Jessie Olssen, in 1899. That same year, Booker T. Washington visited Tanner in Paris and published an article on his work. That exposure, along with numerous exhibits in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and other art centers helped cement his reputation.

After the couple’s only child, Jesse, was born in 1903, the family made a decision to settle permanently in France, dividing its time between a farm in Normandy and Paris. In his later life, Tanner enjoyed constant acclaim and a growing reputation and popularity. “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” earned a silver medal at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1900, and at the Pan American Exhibition in Buffalo in 1901. Tanner’s first solo exhibit of religious works appeared at the American Art Galleries in New York in 1908. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Design in 1910. In 1923, he received France’s highest honor as an Honorary Chevalier of the Order of the Legion of Honor. In 1925, the historic black journal The Crisis featured Tanner on the cover with W. E. B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, and Samuel Taylor-Coleridge as African American geniuses. He became the first African American elected a full academician of the National Academy of Design in 1927. Legions of young black artists came to visit him in Paris before his death on May 25, 1937.


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