Henry Ossawa Tanner

Artist Biography

American Realist Painter

By Amy Spencer

Henry Ossawa Tanner was the first African-American artist to gain international acclaim.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

In the late nineteenth century, Henry Ossawa Tanner was the first African-American artist to achieve international eminence. Early in his career Tanner received positive critical attention for his sensitive genre paintings of black Americans. After settling permanently in Paris in 1895, his subject matter shifted to biblical scenes, which he used to explore salient social and moral issues. In his later years, Tanner was a symbol of inspiration for African-American leaders and artists, many of whom visited him in Paris.

Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1859. His father was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Tanner was raised in an affluent, well-educated family. In 1868, Tanner moved with his family to Philadelphia where, at age of thirteen, he decided to become an artist after seeing a painter in Fairmount Park near his home.

In 1879, Tanner enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. One of his teachers was Thomas Eakins whose progressive views, modern teaching techniques, and precise skills had a profound effect on Tanner. Tanner developed a thorough knowledge of anatomy, becoming skillful in the depiction of the solid human form. During his time at the Pennsylvania Academy, Tanner befriended Robert Henri, one of the founders of the socially progressive Ashcan School.

Tanner moved to Atlanta in 1889. He briefly ran his own gallery before becoming a drawing instructor at Clark University. In 1891, Bishop Joseph C. Hartzell and his wife arranged Tanner’s first solo exhibition at the Board of Education, Methodist Episcopal Church in Cincinnati. The proceeds from this successful show enabled Tanner to travel to Paris in 1891, where he studied at Académie Julian with renowned artists Jean Paul Laurens and Jean Joseph Benjamin-Constant as his teachers.

Tanner returned to the United States in 1893 to recuperate from typhoid fever and deliver a paper on African-Americans and art at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was at this point in his career that Tanner turned his attention to genre paintings of African-Americans. At the end of the 19th century, most artists painted African-American subjects either as caricatures or sentimental figures living in poverty. Tanner sought to represent black subjects with dignity. His sympathetic representation of African-American life is epitomized by his most iconic image The Banjo Lesson (1893, Hampton University Museum), which depicts an older black man instructing a young boy how to play the instrument. After 1894, Tanner produced only a few more images of African-American subjects however throughout his career he remained committed to social issues and sensitively depicting people of all races and class.

The Banjo Player was selected by the Paris Salon jury of 1894 and the following year Tanner returned to Paris. He took a studio at 51 boulevard Saint-Jacques and began to focus on painting religious subjects. The painting Daniel in the Lions’ Den (1895), illustrating the story from the Old Testament in which Daniel is falsely accused and cast into a den of lions, demonstrates Tanner’s use of the bible for inspiration in addressing issues such as slavery and injustice. The painting was selected for the 1896 Salon, winning Tanner his first honorable mention award. The critical praise for Daniel in the Lions’ Den solidified Tanner’s position in the artistic elite and marked the future direction of his paintings.

In 1897, Tanner took a trip to Egypt and Palestine funded by the art critic Rodman Wannamaker. Wannamaker believed that a serious painter of biblical scenes needed to see the Holy Land firsthand. In Palestine, Tanner explored numerous mosques and biblical sites, creating character studies of the local population. After this trip, Tanner’s paintings developed an air of mystique and spirituality, as he cannily depicted the colors, light, and deep shadows of the ‘Orient’. Tanner took a second trip, painting around Jerusalem and the region of the Dead Sea, in 1899.

Also in 1899, Tanner married Jessie Olssen, a white opera singer from San Francisco. The couple’s only child, Jesse Ossawa, was born in New York in 1903. The family settled permanently in France in 1904, dividing their time between Tanner’s studio-apartment in Paris and a farm in Trépied near Etaples in Normandy.

Tanner had his first American solo exhibition of religious paintings in 1908 at the American Art Galleries in New York. During the following three decades of his life, Tanner continued to exhibit regularly in America and most of his patrons were American, however he only ever returned to his country of birth for brief visits. Tanner never openly expressed bitterness towards the treatment he received in America, which drove him to live in Paris, however he wrote of racism in 1914, “This condition has driven me out of the country, but still… deep down in my heart I love it and am sometimes sad that I cannot live where my heart is at.”1

During World War I, Tanner served with the Red Cross Public Information Department, while painting images from the front lines during his spare time. In 1923, Tanner was made an honorary chevalier of the Order of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest honor, and in 1927, he became the first African-American to become a full academician of the National Academy of Design.

After his wife Jessie died in 1925, Tanner was grief stricken and remained in poor health, painting only occasionally, for the remainder of his life. On May 25, 1937, Tanner died in his sleep at home in Paris.

Nearly sixty years after his death in 1996 Tanner’s Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City (c. 1885) entered the permanent art collection of the White House (it currently hangs in the Green Room). As the first painting by an African-American artist to be purchased by the White House, Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City is symbolic of the national regard for which Tanner, an artist who lived his life in semi-exile outside of America, has come to achieve posthumously. In countering the prejudices and omissions of earlier eras, other significant collections to recognize Tanner’s genius include the Louvre Museum, the Musée d’Orsay, the National Gallery of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

II. Chronology

1858 Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
1860 Moves with family to Washington, D.C.
1868 Moves with family to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
1872 Begins painting after seeing artist working in Fairmount Park
1876 Earliest dated work, Harbor Scene, painted while in Atlantic City
1877 Graduates from Roberts Vaux Consolidated School for Colored Students
Apprenticed to work in a flour mill, however after serve illness quits and pursuers a career as an artist
1879 Begins studying at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (studies here until 1885)
1882 Has three illustrations published in the magazine Our Continent
1887 Has biography included in Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising, a dictionary of prominent African-Americans
1889 Moves to Atlanta and serves as a drawing instructor at Clark University
1890 Has first solo exhibition at the headquarters of the Board of Education, Methodist Episcopal Church in Cincinnati
1891 Travels to Rome, London, and Paris, remains in Paris to study at Académie Julian
1893 Returns to America to recuperate from typhoid fever
Visits Chicago to present a paper, ‘The American Negro in Art’, at World’s Columbian Exposition
Paints The Banjo Lesson, a high point in his early genre paintings featuring African-Americans
1895 Move back to Paris to escape racial discrimination in America
Rents studio-apartment at 52 boulevard Saint-Jacques (maintains it until 1904)
1897 Travels to Palestine and Egypt (also travels to the Middle East in 1899)
1899 Marries Jessie Macauley Olssen in London (over the next five years the couple travel extensively together, living for periods in London, Normandy, Mount Kisco (New York State), Granada, before settling in Paris and Trépied in 1904)
1903 Invited to serve on the jury for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Son, Jesse Ossawa, is born in New York City
1904 Rents a studio at 70 bis rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, Paris (maintains it until 1912)
Purchases a summer house at Trépied, a commune in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of Normandy, France
1908 Visits Algiers
Has solo exhibition at American Art Galleries, New York
1909 Publishes autobiographical article, ‘The Story of an Artist’s Life’, in World’s Week
1912 Moves back into studio-apartment at 52 boulevard Saint-Jacques (remains here until 1934)
1914 Travels with family to England after the outbreak of World War One and evacuation of Trépied
Returns to Trépied and becomes involved with relief work
1917 Serves with the American Red Cross, France in the Department of Public Information, and then Farm and Garden Services (until 1919)
1923 Elected chevalier of Legion of Honor by the French government
1934 Moves to last studio-apartment at 43 rue de Fleurus
1937 Dies in Paris

III. Collections

Art Institute of Chicago, IL
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, ME
Brooklyn Museum, NY
Carnegie Museum of Art, PA
Dallas Museum of Art, TX
Des Moines Art Center, IA
Detroit Institute of Art, MI
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, CA
High Museum of Art, GA
Howard University Art Collection, DC
Hyde Collection, NY
La Salle University Art Museum, PA
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
Louvre Museum, Paris, France
Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, NY
Morris Museum of Art, GA
Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
Muskegon Museum of Art, MI
National Academy Museum & School of Fine Arts, NY
National Gallery of Art, DC
National Museum of African Art, DC
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA
Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
Princeton University Art Museum, NJ
Saint Louis Art Museum, MO
Sheldon Art Gallery, NE
Smithsonian American Art Museum, DC
Smithsonian Archives of American Art, DC
Springfield Museum of Art, OH
Telfair Museum of Art, GA
Terra Foundation for American Art, IL
The Newark Museum, NJ
The Walters Art Museum, MD
Weatherspoon Art Museum at The University of North Carolina, NC
Westmoreland Museum of American Art, PA

IV. Exhibitions

1885 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
1886 National Academy of Design, New York, NY
1889 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
1891 Board of Education, Methodist Episcopal Church, Cincinnati, OH
1893 Word’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, IL
1894 Paris Salon, Paris, France
Earle’s Galleries, Philadelphia, PA
Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, Philadelphia, PA
1895 Paris Salon, Paris, France
Atlanta’s Cotton States and International Exposition, Atlanta, GE
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
1896 Paris Salon, Paris, France
1897 Paris Salon, Paris, France
1898 Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
The Annunciation, Paris Salon, Paris, France
1899 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
The Century Club, New York, NY
Paris Salon, Paris, France
Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, PA
1900 Universal Exposition, Paris, France
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
Paris Salon, Paris, France
1901 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
1902 Society of Fine Arts, Minneapolis, MN
1904 Society of American Artists, Paris, France
1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition, Portland, OR
Exposition Universelle, Liége, Belgium
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
1906 Paris Salon, Paris, France
American Art Students Club, Paris, France
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
1907 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
Société Internationale de Peinture et Sculpture, Paris, France
Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, PA
1908 American Art Galleries, New York, NY
Alaskan-Yukon Pacific Exposition, Seattle, WA
1909 City Art Museum, St. Louis, MO
1910 Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY
Corcoran Art Gallery, Washington, DC
1911 Thurber Art Galleries, Chicago, IL
1913 Knoedler’s Gallery, New York, NY
1916 Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
1921 Vose Gallery, Boston, MA
Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI
1922 City Art Museum, St. Louis, MO
Gallery of Fine Arts, Columbus, OH
1923 Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
1924 Grand Central Art Galleries, New York, NY
1926 Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY
California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA
1927 National Academy of Design, New York, NY
1934 County Museum of History, Science, and Art, Los Angeles, CA
1969 Smithsonian Institute, Washington, DC
1991 Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
2000 The Great Migration: The Evolution of African American Art, 1790-1945, Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, OH
2005 Henry Ossawa Tanner and the Lure of Paris, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD
2006 Les artistes américains et le Louvre, Louvre Museum, Paris, France

V. Memberships

American Art Association of Paris
American Art Students’ Club of Paris
Paris Society of American Painters
Full Academician, National Academy of Design
President, Société Artistique de Picardie, Le Touquet-Paris-Plage
American Negro Academy, Washington, D.C.
American Artists Professional League (European Chapter)
Allied Artists of America, New York

VI. Notes

Henry Ossawa Tanner in letter to Mrs. Tietjens on May 25, 1914, quoted in Matthews, Maria, Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969, p. 143.

VII. Suggested Resources

Bruce, Marcus, Henry Ossawa Tanner: A Spiritual Biography, New York: Crossroad Publications, 2002.
Matthews, Maria, Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.
Mosby, Dewey F. and Minter, Rae Alexander, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1991.

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