Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner
Henry Ossawa Tanner in 1907.


Henry Ossawa Tanner (June 21, 1859 – May 25, 1937) often referred to as Henry O. Tanner, was an African American artist and one of the first African American painters to gain international acclaim.  He was a man whose influence later showed up in the works of the likes of Norman Rockwell.  He was born in Pittsburgh, PA.  His father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner was a minister, editor, and political activist.  His mother Sarah Tanner had escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad.  The family moved to Philadelphia when Tanner was young.  His father was a friend, sometime supporter, and sometime critic of Frederick Douglass.

Although many artists refused to accept an African American apprentice, in 1879 Tanner enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, becoming the only black student. 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 of 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. 

Henry Ossawa Tanner - Lion Drinking 

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Lion Drinking

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 the canvas

Henry Ossawa Tanner portrayed in thick, rich and dark colors, scenes from black life and from the Bible.   He often explained that his interest in painting was from an early age.  At the young age of thirteen, while walking in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, with his father, he was fascinated by the sight of an artist at work.  He was so impressed that he rushed home and attempted to copy the same landscape from memory, using house-painter’s brushes on the cardboard back of an old geography book.

Henry Ossawa Tanner - Gateway  Tangier 1912

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Gateway, Tangier, 1912. Oil on canvas, 18 7/16" × 15 5/16". St. Louis Art Museum.

Tanner pursued his chosen career with such skill and application that even the opposition of his family could not stop him.  Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner of the African Methodist Episcopal Church gave him all the support possible once it was evident that Henry’s interest was genuine.  For many years, Henry worked hard at developing his technique, modeling the animals in the zoo in Philadelphia, painting seascapes, and studying under William Chase and Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he received excellent training in draftsmanship and painting techniques.

Eakins, who was a friend and teacher, held that, “If America is to produce great painters and if young art students wish to assume a place in the history of their country, their first desire should be to remain in America, to peer deeper into the heart of American life”.  This was the highest order of preaching, since at that time it was considered essential to study and work in Europe since it was the fountainhead of all great art.

Tanner failed to heed Eakins’s advice.  Although, for a short period he taught at Clark College in Atlanta and spent his spare time painting landscapes and the folk of the North Carolina Mountains.  His work of this period, of which The Banjo Lesson is an example, hinted that at last African-American life would inspire a genre painter who would portray his race with sensitivity and understanding. Unfortunately, this promise was not fulfilled.

Henry Ossawa Tanner - The Arch  

Henry Ossawa Tanner - The Arch -Brooklyn Museum

Tanner was very unhappy at Clark College.  Friends and admirers encouraged him.  But, no doubt he experienced the usual racism.  He became convinced he could not succeed in America and became determined to study in Europe.  

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 racism: “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 anew tortured by the thought of what I had endured, almost as much as the incident itself.”

Henry Ossawa Tanner - The Seine 1902 

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Seine (c. 1902), one of only three paintings by African-Americans currently on display in the National Gallery of Art's American Art galleries. 

In an attempt to gain artistic acceptance, Tanner left America for France in late 1891.  With the help of Bishop Hartzell, who arranged a one-man show for him and who ended up purchasing most of his paintings, Tanner finally succeeded in reaching Paris, where he studied under Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens at the Académie Julian in 1891 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.  Except for occasional brief returns home, he spent the rest of his life there.

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 CourbetJean-Baptiste Chardin and Louis Le Nain.  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.

Henry Ossawa Tanner - Moroccan Man 

Henry Ossawa Tanner - Moroccan Man

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 and he settled at the Étaples art colony in Normandy.  Earlier on, Tanner painted marine scenes that showed man’s struggle with the sea, but by 1895 he was creating mostly religious works.  A transitional work from this period is the recently rediscovered painting of a fishing boat tossed on the waves at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  This is based on the description of a miracle in the Gospel of Matthew in which 'the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary' (14:24).  The simple resources at Étaples-sur-Mer were well adapted to his subject matter, which in several cases featured Biblical figures in dark interiors.

 Henry Ossawa Tanner - The Thankful Poor

Henry O. Tanner, The Thankful Poor

Tanner developed a mature style grounded on his earlier work with Eakins and his admiration for Rembrandt, and he tried his hand at a variety of paintings.  During summers in Brittany he painted a number of landscapes.  Some of them were “Bois d’Amour”, “Evening Near Pont-Aven”, “Rocks at Concarneau”, and “Return of the Fishing Boats”.  He also painted a series of genre paintings of Breton life, which are reminiscent of his earlier pictures of African-Americans in North Carolina.  Such paintings as “The Bagpipe Lesson” and “The Sabot Makers” show the same sensitivity for his subjects that we find in “The Banjo Lesson”.   Originally headed for the ministry, and influenced by his father, Bishop Tanner, the artist had deep religious feelings that were expressed in his work.  

In the Paris Salon of 1896 he received honorable mention for a painting called “Daniel in the Lion’s Den”, which 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.  Upon seeing "The Resurrection of Lazarus", art critic Rodman Wanamaker offered to cover an all expenses-paid trip for Tanner to the Middle East. Wanamaker 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. 

 Henry Ossawa Tanner - Return of The Holy Women

Henry O. Tanner, Return of The Holy Women

With the support of Rodman Wanamaker, Tanner visited Palestine. Explorations of various mosques and biblical sites as well as character studies of the local population allowed him to further his artistic training.  This trip inspired him to paint a great biblical series that brought him fame.  His success with this theme led to others in the same sentimental vein.  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 Eugène Delacroix and later Henri Matisse made such tours to capitalize on this curiosity.

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, his 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 Episcopal Church, was a formative influence in this direction.

 Henry Ossawa Tanner - The Resurrection of Lazarus 

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Resurrection of Lazarus

His 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 Shepherd"(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.

Henry Ossawa Tanner - The Annunciation 1898 

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation, 1898. Oil on canvas, 57" × 71½". Philadelphia Museum of Art.

His paintings won prizes in the Paris Salons and were purchased by many American museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Chicago Art Institute, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  The French Government made him a member (knight) of the Legion of Honor in 1923 for his work as an artist.  He was also the recipient of a gold medal from the Exposition Universelle International and a bronze medal from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.  Most important of all, he became the first African American to be elected to a full member of the National Academy of Design.

In spite of his recognition and talent, Tanner remained an expatriate for forty-five years. Embittered by sensational publicity about his race, he became a studio recluse.  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 war.  Tanner met with fellow African American artist Palmer Hayden in Paris circa 1927, discussing both artistic technique and providing Hayden advice on interacting with French society.

Atlanta art collector J. J. Haverty purchased several of Tanner's paintings.  Haverty founded the Haverty Furniture Company and was also instrumental in establishing the High Museum of Art.  Tanner's " Étaples Fisher Folk" is among several paintings from the Haverty collection now in the High Museum's permanent collection.  Among his best-known paintings are The Resurrection of Lazarus, The Disciples at the Tomb, Christ Walking on the Water, The Annunciation, and Christ and Nicodemus.  Recently some one hundred and fifty drawings, lithographs, etchings, and watercolors, were discovered which lay unnoticed for almost forty years in Tanner’s dusty old studio in Paris. This cache of paintings reveals new dimensions in his work.  No matter what the final judgment of Tanner’s work, the honors accumulated by him in his life place him in a unique position in American art.  Tanner died peacefully in Paris, France on May 25, 1937 

 Sand Dunes at Sunset Atlantic City by 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 O. Tanner's work was influential during his career.  He has been called "the greatest African American painter to date."  The early paintings of William Edouard Scott, with whom Tanner studied in France, showcase the influence of Tanner’s technique.  In addition, some of Norman Rockwell’s illustrations deal 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, and crumpled hat on the floor.  “Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City” (c. 1885 oil on canvas) hangs in the Green Room at the White House.  It is the first painting by an African-American artist to enter the permanent collection of the White House.  The painting is a landscape with a "view across the cool gray of a shadowed beach to dunes made pink by the late afternoon sunlight.  A low haze over the water partially hides the sun."  It was acquired through the White House Endowment Fund for $100,000 during the Clinton administration, from Dr. Rae Alexander-Minter, grandniece of the artist.

Henry Ossawa Tanner - The Banjo Lesson 1893 

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893. Oil on canvas, 49" × 35½".Hampton University Museum.

In 1893 on a short return visit to the United States, Tanner painted his most famous work, “The Banjo Lesson”, in Philadelphia.  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.  These 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 just stereotypes. 

1973 commemorative US stamp honoring Tanner 

1973 U.S. commemorative stamp honoring Tanner.

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 where the 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.


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