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Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)

1 of 6

View of the Seine, Looking Toward Notre Dame, 1896
oil on canvas
14 7/8" x 20 1/8"

Mary Washing the Feet of Christ, c.1910
oil on panel
7 1/4" x 9 1/4", signed


Coastal Landscape, France, c.1912
oil on gessoed panel
9 1/4” x 13”, signed


Untitled, c.1912
oil on canvas
10 3/4" x 13 3/4", signed and dated

Sodom and Gomorrah, c.1920-4
oil on canvas
41 1/2" x 36 1/2" sheet size / 41 1/8" x 36 1/4" sight size


Two Disciples at the Tomb, c.1925

oil on canvas on board

51 1/2 x 43 1/4 inches, signed


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Artist Information

“I choose my religious subjects not primarily because I believe they will interest people, nor because I consider them most salable . . . I have chosen the character of my art because it conveys my message and tells what I want to tell to my own generation and leave to the future.”[i]

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1859 to Benjamin Tucker Tanner, an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) bishop, and Sarah Miller Tanner, a former slave who had escaped through the Underground Railroad, Henry Ossawa Tanner spent much of his childhood moving between Alexandria, Virginia; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Frederick, Maryland, where they lived during the last year of the Civil War. When Tanner was thirteen, his family returned to Philadelphia to settle permanently. Soon after, Tanner saw a man painting landscapes in a Philadelphia park and knew he wanted to become an artist. The next morning, Tanner purchased art supplies and began his first attempts at sketching and painting. While Benjamin Tanner had no objection to art as a pastime, he discouraged his son from becoming a professional artist. However, despite his father’s objections, in the fall of 1879, Tanner attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied with Thomas Eakins until 1882. Although he left school early, Tanner continued to paint, and he attempted to make a living as an artist. In 1888, he set up a photography studio in Atlanta, Georgia, where he also sold drawings and taught art classes. However, the studio proved untenable as a real source of income. Tanner closed the studio and spent two years teaching art at Clark College in Atlanta.

In 1891, Tanner traveled to Europe initially intending to study in Rome. Instead, he went to Paris, where he studied at the Académie Julien with Jean Joseph Benjamin-Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens. In 1892, Tanner returned to the United States for two years, settling in Philadelphia. During this time, he painted two of his most celebrated genre scenes of African American subjects, The Banjo Lesson (1893)—which was inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem A Banjo Song—and The Thankful Poor (1894). Tanner’s relative privilege as a child had not protected him from racism, and an astute observer, he saw how his father was treated differently even by fellow clergymen due to the color of his skin. As an adult, Tanner became increasingly convinced that racism in the United States would prevent his work from gaining the recognition it deserved, and in 1894, just two years after Homer Plessy’s arrest for sitting in a “whites only” train compartment in Louisiana, Tanner left the home he loved for Paris, settling there more or less permanently.

Tanner’s move to Paris coincided with a rise in religious painting, due in part to a Catholic revival in France as well as to the sacred imagery prominent in the work of the symbolists. In 1895, Tanner also began to create paintings based on religious themes, and while his work might have overlapped in theme with that of his contemporaries, Tanner’s style, in particular his ability to capture both the ethereal and the material on canvas, owed more to art of the past. In 1896, Tanner’s Daniel in the Lion’s Den received an honorable mention at the Paris Salon, and the following year, Resurrection of Lazarus won a medal and was subsequently purchased by the French government.

Tanner’s considerable talent earned him critical acclaim and attracted wealthy collectors like American department store mogul Rodman Wannamaker, who was so impressed with the artist’s work, he paid for Tanner’s trip to North Africa and the Middle East. In 1897, Tanner traveled throughout Palestine, Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria. Afterwards, he painted his masterwork Nicodemus Visiting Jesus, which won him the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Lippincott Prize in 1900, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art purchased the painting. Tanner began to achieve recognition in the United States, although he objected to the label “Negro artist,” and the way it instantly shaped how his work was viewed.

Although Tanner’s work was frequently included in group exhibitions in the United States and Europe, it was not until 1908 that he had his first major solo show, at American Art Galleries in New York. Shortly before the start of the First World War, he arrived at his mature style, “characterized stylistically by the thick build-up of enamel-like surfaces,” but he was so distressed by the war that Tanner ceased to create art and instead worked for the Red Cross for its duration.[ii] In 1923, he received France’s highest honor when he was made Chevalier by the Order of the Legion of Honor, and in 1927, Tanner was elected a full member of the National Academy of Design in New York, the first African American to receive that distinction. Tanner’s accomplishments living abroad inspired numerous other black American artists, many of whom followed him to Europe in search of opportunity and recognition. In 1990, the Philadelphia Museum of Art organized a major traveling retrospective of his work, and in 1995, Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City (c.1885) was purchased for the White House art collection, making him the first African American artist in the collection.

[i] Jennifer J. Harper, “The Early Religious Paintings of Henry Ossawa Tanner: A Study of the Influences of Church, Family, and Era,” American Art, v.6, n. 4 (Autumn, 1992), 75.

[ii] Dewey Franklin Mosby, “Henry Ossawa Tanner,” Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higgenbotham, eds., African American Lives (Oxford University Press, 2004), 277.



Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, ME
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX
Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroi, MI
High Museum, Atlanta, GA
Hood Museum of Art, Hanover, NH
Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Huntington Museum of Art, Huntington, WV
LaSalle University Art Museum, Philadelphia, PA
Los Angeles County Museum, Los Angeles, CA
Menil Collection, Houston, TX
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Milwaukee Museum of Art, Milwaukee, WI
Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson, MS
Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, GA
Musee D'Orsay, Paris, France
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
Muskegon Museum of Art, Muskegon, MI
National Academy of Design Museum, New York, NY
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MI
Newark Museum, Newark, NJ
New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, MO
Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
Springfield Museum of Art, Springfield, OH
Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, IL
Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT
Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, NC
Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, PA
The White House, Washington, DC
The William Benton Museum of Art, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
Yale University Art Gallery, Hartford, CT