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 going about their daily lives are regarded as classic statements of African-American pride and dignity.

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Image: The Banjo Lesson by Henry Ossawa Turner, 1893

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) was the son of an African Methodist Episcopal minister, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, and his wife Sarah; she had escaped slavery on the Underground Railroad as a child. The couple gave their son his middle name in honor of Osawatomie, the Kansas town where the white militant Abolitionist John Brown had launched his anti-slavery campaign.

Tanner was raised primarily in Philadelphia and he began to paint when he was thirteen. From 1879 to 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. Joseph Hartzell, Tanner traveled to Europe in 1891 and settled in Paris, which would become his primary residence for the remainder of his life.

European & American Acclaim
Not only did Tanner enjoy the relative freedom from prejudice he experienced in Paris, 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 that helped to establish Tanner’s artistic reputation in America–a reputation that continued to grow through numerous exhibitions in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and other major art centers. By 1925 the African-American journal The Crisis featured Tanner on its cover along with W.E.B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor as models of African-American creative geniuses.

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 sympathy he was able to engender. The most famous of these are The Banjo Lesson (painted in 1893 and inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “A Banjo Song”) and The Thankful Poor (1894), which stand alongside William Sidney Mount’s paintings in the 19th century for their nobility and simplicity of portraiture of African Americans. In these paintings Tanner was able to encase deeply personal and poignant themes, using the visual language of the great masters. In his later work, influenced by his travels to Tangiers and the Holy Land, Tanner focused on Biblical subjects using a subtle palette and lyrical luminism to portray psychologically modern interpretations of archetypal themes.

The very color-blindness Tanner aspired to in the judgment 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.

–Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing

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