Henry Ossawa Tanner (June 21, 1859–May 25, 1937) was an African American
artist who studied with Thomas Eakins and was the first African American painter
to gain international acclaim.Henry Ossawa Tanner (June 21, 1859–May 25, 1937)
was an African American artist who studied with Thomas Eakins and was the first
African American painter to gain international acclaim.
Henry Ossawa Tanner (June 21, 1859–May 25, 1937) was an
African American artist who studied with Thomas Eakins and was the first African
American painter to gain international acclaim.
Henry Ossawa Tanner
Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City by Henry Ossawa Tanner is in the
collection of the White House, and hangs in the Green Room. Acquired during
the Clinton administration with funds from the White House Acquisition
Trust, it is the first artwork in the White House by an African American.
Henry Ossawa Tanner
Henry Ossawa Tanner (June 21, 1859–May 25, 1937) was an African American
artist who studied with Thomas Eakins and was the first African American
painter to gain international acclaim.
May 25, 1937 (aged 77)
Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Benjamin Tucker, a minister of
the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Sarah Miller Tanner, a private
school teacher. Tanner was the oldest of nine children.  In 1864, Tanner and
his family moved to Philadelphia, where his artistic interests developed. At the
age of thirteen, Tanner decided to become an artist when he saw a painter in
Fairmount Park near his home,
Tanner was initially self taught. As a young man he read that America was in
need of a great maritime painter. Initially he was drawn to this genre, hoping
to fill this position and make a name for himself .He studied paintings of
seascapes at local galleries and made copies of them from memory. Tanner
observed the works of artists such as William Wilson Cowell, Prosper Louis Senat,
James Hamilton, and Franklin D. Briscoe. A local artist and friend James N. Hess
explained to Tanner that America had even less representation in the field of
animal painting. The opportunity to fill this void in American art excited
young Tanner. His subject matter of this time reflect this ambition.
To further hone his artistic dexterity Tanner often visited the Philadelphia
Zoo. He used the animals as subjects for his various sketches and clay model. He
continued to study independently, from observation, rather than seek
professional training. Tanner’s quiet personality, the racial bias of the
academic world at the time, and the advice of his friend Henry Price not to
pursue a formal education all factored in this decision. During the day Tanner
worked for a flour business to earn money for living expenses and costly art
supplies. He would often rise at dawn to paint before going to work, and
eventually became ill from the workload and lack of sleep. Tanner's family,
particularly his father, continued to encourage his artistic endeavors and
assist him financially for the next fifteen years.
In 1880 Tanner enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in
Philadelphia. His decision to attend the school came at an exciting time in the
history of artistic institutional training. Art academies had long relied on
tired notions of study devoted almost entirely to plaster cast studies and
anatomy lectures. This changed drastically with the addition Thomas Eakins as
“Professor of Drawing and Painting” to the Pennsylvania Academy. Eakins
encouraged new methods such as study from live models, direct discussion of
anatomy in male and female classes, and dissections of cadavers to further
familiarity and understanding of the human body. Eakins’s progressive views and
ability to excite and inspire his students would have a profound effect on
Tanner. The young artist proved to be one of Eakins’s favorite students; two
decades after Tanner left the Academy Eakins painted his portrait, making him
one of a handful of students to be so honored.At the Academy Tanner befriended artists with whom he would keep in
contact throughout the rest of his life, most notable of these being Robert
Henri, one of the founders of the Ashcan School. During a relatively short time
at the Academy, Tanner developed a thorough knowledge of anatomy and an ability
to transfer his understanding of the weight and structure of the human figure to
Issues of race
Tanner’s non-confrontational personality and preference for subtle expression
in his work seem to belie his difficulties, but his life was not without
struggle. Although he gained confidence as an artist and began to sell his work,
racism was a prevalent condition in Philadelphia, as massive numbers of African
Americans left the rural South and settled in Northern urban centers. Although
painting became a therapeutic source of release for him, lack of acceptance was
painful. In his autobiography The Story of an Artist’s Life, Tanner
describes the burden of race:
“I was extremely timid and to be made to feel that I was not wanted, although
in a place where I had every right to be, even months afterwards caused me
sometimes weeks of pain. Every time any one of these disagreeable incidents came
into my mind, my heart sank, and I was a new tortured by the thought of what I
had endured, almost as much as the incident itself.”
In an attempt to gain artistic acceptance, Tanner left America for France in
the winter of 1891. Except for occasional brief returns home, he would spend the
rest of his life there.
After an unsuccessful attempt at opening a photography studio in Atlanta and
teaching drawing at Clark University  Tanner traveled to France in 1891, to
the Academie Julian, and joined the American Art Students Club of Paris. Paris
was a welcome escape for Tanner; within French art circles the issue of race
mattered little. Tanner acclimated quickly to Parisian life.
In Paris, Tanner was introduced to many new artworks that would affect the way
in which he painted. At the Louvre, Tanner encountered and studied the works of
Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste Chardin and Louis Lenain. These artists had
painted scenes of ordinary people in their environment and the effect in
Tanner’s work is noticeable. One example is the striking similarity between
Tanner’s “The Young Sabot Maker” (1895) and Courbet’s “The Stonebreakers”
(1850). Both paintings explore the theme of apprenticeship and menial labor.
He studied under renowned artists such as Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant and
Jean-Paul Laurens. With their guidance Tanner began to make a name for himself.
His painting entitled “Daniel in the Lions Den”, was accepted into the 1896
Salon. Later that year he painted “The Resurrection of Lazarus”. The critical
praise for this piece solidified Tanner’s position in the artistic elite and
heralded the future direction of his paintings, to mostly biblical themes. This
painting would eventually lead to Tanner's first trip to the Middle East.
Upon seeing "The Resurrection of Lazarus", art critic Rodman Wannamaker offered
to cover an all expenses-paid trip for Tanner to the Middle East. Wannamaker
felt that any serious painter of biblical scenes needed to see this environment
firsthand and that a painter of Tanner's caliber was well worth the investment.
Tanner quickly accepted the offer. Before the next Salon opened, Tanner set
forth for Palestine. Explorations of various mosques and biblical sites as well
as character studies of the local population allowed Tanner to further his
artistic training. His paintings developed a powerful air of mystique and
spirituality. Tanner was not the first artist to study the Middle East in
person. Since the 1830s, a growing interest in Orientalism had been growing in
Europe. Artists such as Eugene Delacroix and later Henri Matisse made such tours
to capitalize on this curiosity.
The Banjo Lesson
In 1893 on a short return visit to the United States, Tanner painted his most
famous work, The Banjo Lesson. The painting shows an elderly black man
teaching what is assumed to be his grandson how to play the banjo. This
deceptively simple-looking work explores several important themes. Blacks had
long been stereotyped as entertainers in American culture, and the image of a
black man playing the banjo appears throughout American art of the late 19th
century. Thomas Worth, Willy Miller, Walter M. Dunk, Eastman Johnson and
Tanner’s own teacher Thomas Eakins had tackled the subject in their artwork.This images however are often reduced to a minstrel type portrayal.
Tanner works against this familiar stereotype by producing a sensitive
reinterpretation. Instead of a generalization the painting portrays a specific
moment of human interaction. The two characters concentrate intently on the task
before them. They seem to be oblivious to the rest of the world which magnifies
the sense of real contact and cooperation. Skillfully painted portraits of the
individuals make it obvious that these are real people and not types. In
addition to being a meaningful exploration of human qualities, the piece is
masterfully painted. Tanner undertakes the difficult endeavor of two separate
and varying light sources. A natural white, blue glow from outside enters from
the left while the warm light from a fireplace is apparent on the right. The
figures are illuminated by two light sources meet; some have hypothesized this
as a manifestation of Tanner’s situation in transition between two worlds, his
American past and his newfound home in France.
Tanner is often regarded as a realist painter,
focusing on accurate depictions of subjects. While his early works, such
as "The Banjo Lesson" were concerned with everyday life as an African American,
Tanner's later paintings focused mainly on the religious subjects for which he
is now best known. It is likely that Tanner's father, a minister in the
African Methodist Church, was a formative influence in this direction.
Tanner's body of work is not limited to one specific approach to painting.
His works vary from meticulous attention to detail in some paintings to loose,
expressive brushstrokes in others. Often both methods are employed
simultaneously. The combination of these two techniques makes for a masterful
balance of skillful precision and powerful expression. Tanner was also
interested in the effects that color could have in a painting. Many of his
paintings accentuate a specific area of the color spectrum. Warmer compositions
such as "The Resurrection of Lazarus"(1896) and "The Annunciation"(1898) exude
the intensity and fire of religious moments. They describe the elation of
transcendence between the divine and humanity. Other paintings emphasize cooler,
blue hues. Works such as "The Good Shepard"(1903) and "Return of the Holy
Women"(1904) evoke a feeling of somber religiosity and introspection. Tanner
often experimented with the importance of light in a composition. The source and
intensity of light and shadow in his paintings create a physical, almost
tangible space and atmosphere while adding emotion and mood to the environment.
During World War I, Tanner worked for the Red Cross Public Information
Department, at which time he also painted images from the front lines of the
Several of Tanner's paintings were purchased by Atlanta art collector J. J.
Haverty, who founded Haverty Furniture Co. and was instrumental in establishing
the High Museum of Art. Tanner's "Etaples Fisher Folk" is among several
paintings from the Haverty collection now in the High Museum's permanent
Tanner died in Paris, France on May 25, 1937.
Though he is not well known to the greater public, Tanner's work was
influential. The early paintings of William Edouard Scott,with whom Tanner
studied in France, for example showcase the effect of Tanner’s technique.
In addition, some of Norman Rockwell’s illustrations deals with the same themes
and compositions that Tanner pursued. Rockwell's proposed cover of the "Literary
Digest" in 1922 for example shows an older black man playing the banjo for his
grandson. The light sources mirror Tanner’s “Banjo Lesson” almost identically. A
fireplace illuminates the right side of the picture while natural light enters
from the left. Both use similar objects as well such as the clothing, chair,
crumpled hat on the floor. Tanner's style and approach to painting can be seen
many other artists. Even though he remains largely unknown and underrated to the
public today, Tanner undeniably left his mark on the art world.
Pomp at the Zoo (1880) Private Collection
Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City (1886) Estate of Sadie T.M.
The Banjo Lesson (1893) Hampton University Museum, Virginia
The Thankful Poor (1894) William H. and Camille O. Cosby
The Young Sabot Maker (1895) Estate of Sadie T.M. Alexander
Daniel in the Lions' Den (1895) Los Angeles County Museum of Art
The Resurrection of Lazarus (1896) Musee d'Orsay, Paris
The Annunciation (1898) Philadelphia Museum of Art, W.P Wilstach
The Good Shepard (1903) Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers
Return of the Holy Women (1904) Cedar Rapids Art Gallery, Iowa
Two Disciples at the Tomb (1905-1906) Art Institute of Chicago
The Holy Family (1909-1910) Muskegon Museum of Art, Michigan,
Hackley Picture Fund
1972. The Art of Henry Ossawa Tanner. Glen Falls, New York: The Hyde
1972. 19th Century American Landscape. New York: Metropolitan Museum of
1976. Two Centuries of Black American Art. Los Angeles County Museum of
1989. Black Art Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African-American
Art. Dallas Museum of Art.
1993. Revisiting the White City: American Art at the 1893 World's Fair
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