At Large  June 15, 2023  Megan D Robinson

Henry Ossawa Tanner's Life and Art

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, detail of The Banjo Lesson, 1893. Oil on canvas. 49 x 35.5 in. Hampton University Museum.

The first African American painter to receive international critical acclaim, expressive realist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859 – 1937), exhibited at the Paris Salon, received honors from the French government, mentored later artists such as William Edouard Scott, and influenced Norman Rockwell. Tanner's Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City—the first painting by an African American artist in the White House permanent collection, was bought by the Bill Clinton administration for $100,000 from his grandniece, Dr. Rae Alexander-Minter.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City, 1885. Oil on canvas. The White House Green Room, Washington D.C.

His portraits subvert visual stereotypes, revealing his subjects’ poignant human dignity, while his biblical-themed paintings combine a spiritual yearning with a tactile sense of place. Tanner was the eldest child of future African Methodist Episcopal Church bishop Reverend Benjamin Tucker Tanner and Sarah Tanner, who escaped enslavement via the Underground Railroad. His unusual middle name was an homage to abolitionist John Brown’s 1856 battle against pro-slavery forces in Osawatomie, Kansas.

A talented young artist, Tanner enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1879, as the only Black pupil. A student of controversial and influential realist Professor Thomas Eakins, Tanner’s classes included live model drawing, anatomical study, and cadaver dissection, which helped develop his masterful realistic style. After exposure to Impressionism, Tanner integrated bold, expressive brushstrokes and a fascination with light and color into his work. His art style oscillated between meticulous realism and fluid impressions, and was sometimes a synthesis of both.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation, 1898. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Tanner’s early work reflected a growing consciousness of racial identity and his concern over the portrayal of Black Americans in art and media. Tanner delivered a paper at the 1893 World’s Congress on Africa in Chicago entitled “The American Negro in Art.” Pieces like The Banjo Lesson exemplify this dignified, three-dimensional portrayal. The painting captures a poignant scene of intergenerational knowledge sharing—one of the many things stolen from slaves and their descendants. The focus on music, and on the banjo in particular, also directly combats a primary visual strategy of racist minstrel performers and cartoons.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893. Oil on canvas. 49 x 35.5 in. Hampton University Museum.

A deeply spiritual person, Tanner would later focus on biblical paintings, and eventually received funding to visit the Middle East where he studied the landscape to give his paintings verisimilitude.

Frustrated with the entrenched racism of the States, Tanner decided to study abroad. In 1891, with help from patrons, he began studying in Paris, which eventually became his home. From 1894 on, Tanner exhibited regularly at the annual Paris Salon; one of his best-known works, Daniel in the Lions' Den, was awarded an honorable mention in 1896, and The Raising of Lazarus won a third-class medal in 1897, an unusual accomplishment for an American artist.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Daniel in the Lions' Den, 1907-1918. Oil on paper mounted on canvas. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The French government later purchased the painting for the Louvre, and, in 1923, appointed Tanner Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, the highest national order of merit, in recognition of his cultural contributions. Tanner’s skill and accomplishments made him a symbol of hope and inspiration.

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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