HENRY OSSAWA TANNER
One of the first African-American artists to achieve a reputation in both America and Europe, Henry Ossawa Tanner
worked in the Naturalist and genre traditions of American art. Though his work grew increasingly mainstream and
allegorical, his early depictions of humble black folk about their daily lives are regarded as classic statements
of African-American pride and dignity.
The son of an African Methodist Episcopal minister, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, and his wife Sarah, who had escaped on
the Underground Railroad as a child, Henry Tanner's parents gave their son his middle name in honor of the Kansas town
where the white militant Abolitionist John Brown had first launched his anti-slavery campaign. Tanner was raised
primarily in Philadelphia and began to paint when he was thirteen. From 1879-1885 he studied with the dean of the
American Naturalist school, Thomas Eakins, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts before setting up his own Philadelphia
studio. With the patronage of Bishop and Mrs. Hartzell, Tanner traveled to Europe in 1891, settling in Paris, which
would become his primary residence for the remainder of his life.
THE THANKFUL POOR by Tanner (1894)
European & American Acclaim
Not only did Tanner enjoy the relative freedom from prejudice he experienced in Paris, but he also found it refreshing
to be judged solely on his artistic merits without any of the baggage associated with race and color. Before long his
work was accepted by the principal French salons and galleries, where he continued to exhibit for the rest of his career.
European acclaim brought with it recognition in America, too. In 1899 Booker T. Washington visited Tanner in Paris
and published an article which helped to establish Tanner's artistic reputation in America--a reputation that continued
to grow through his numerous exhibitions in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington, Pittsburgh, St.
Louis, and other major art centers. By 1925 THE CRISIS, the historic African-American journal, featured Tanner on
its cover along with W.E.B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, Samuel Taylor-Coleridge as models of African-American creative
After graduating from the imitative style of his pre-Parisian works, Tanner found his idiom first in landscape and genre
works notable not only for their compositional clarity and atmospheric effects, but also for the narrative sypathy he
was able to engender. The most famous of these are THE BANJO LESSON (inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem, A BANJO
SONG) and THE THANKFUL POOR, which stand alongside William Sidney Mount's paintings in the 19th century for the nobility
and simplicity of portraiture of African-Americans. In them Tanner was able to encase deeply personal and poignant
themes in the visual language of the great masters. In his later work Tanner, influenced by his travels to Tangiers
and the Holy Land, focused on Biblical subjects using a subtle palette and lyrical luminism to portray psychologically
modern interpretations of archtepypal themes.
THE BANJO LESSON by Tanner (1894).
The very color-blindness Tanner aspired to in the judgement of his own work, he applied as a credo to his later opus.
His protagonists-- black, white, Arab, Jewish--and his Christian themes are compelling in their universal humanity.