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Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)

Portrait of Jesse When He was Four Years Old, June...

Portrait of Jesse When He was Four Years Old, June 18, 1907, 1907
oil on panel
13 x 9 1/4 inches


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“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]

Canonized as the patriarch of African American artists, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) stands as the most significant African American artist of the nineteenth century and the first to achieve international fame. 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, 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 Julian 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 was arrested for sitting in a “whites only” train compartment in Louisiana, Tanner left the home he loved for Paris, settling there 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.[i] 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. In 1930, Tanner was included in the Venice Biennale and in the ensuing decades, his work was shown at major institutions throughout the United States. Tanner died in Paris in 1937, leaving behind an indelible legacy. His accomplishments living abroad inspired numerous other black American artists, many of whom followed him to Europe in search of opportunity and recognition. For them, Tanner played “a major role in the African American artist’s dream of not just critical praise or institutional affirmation but of geopolitical, racial, and worldly transcendence.”[iii] Cited as a major influence for many leading artists of the twentieth century and beyond, Tanner has continued to inspire generations of African American artists who point to the trailblazing precedent he set.

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. That same year, the exhibition Across Continents and Cultures: The Art and Life of Henry Ossawa Tanner was shown at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago. In 2006 and 2007, the Baltimore Museum of Art mounted two exhibitions exploring Tanner’s ties to Paris and the United States: Henry Ossawa Tanner and the Lure of Paris followed by Henry Ossawa Tanner and His Influence in America. Most recently, in 2012, the exhibition Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit was held at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia, traveling to the Cincinnati Art Museum and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The work of Henry Ossawa Tanner can be found in numerous prestigious museum collections both in the United States and abroad, including the Art Institute of Chicago (IL); Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute (Pittsburgh, PA); Detroit Institute of Arts (MI); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (CA); Menil Collection (Houston, TX); The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY); Musée d’Orsay (Paris, France); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MA); The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (TX); National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC); Philadelphia Museum of Art (PA); Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, DC); Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (Hartford, CT); Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, NY); and Yale University Art Gallery, Yale University (New Haven, CT).

[i] Jennifer J. Harper, “The Early Religious Paintings of Henry Ossawa Tanner: A Study of the Influences of Church, Family, and Era,” American Art vol. 6, no. 4, Autumn 1992, 75

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

[iii] Richard J. Powell, “Tanner and Transcendence,” Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit exh. cat. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012), 57



Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College and Conservatory, Oberlin, OH
Allentown Art Museum, Allentown, PA
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Art Museum of Greater Lafayette, Lafayette, IN
The Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD
Berea College Art Collection, Berea College, Berea, KY
Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, ME
Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY
The Carl Van Vechten Gallery, Fisk University, Nashville, TN
Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, PA
Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Cedar Rapids, IA
Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, Clark Atlanta University, Atlanta, GA
The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH
Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, OH
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR
Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Jacksonville, FL
Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX
de Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA
Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, IA
Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI
The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, TN
DuSable Museum of African American History, Chicago, IL
Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY
Free Library of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA
The George & Leah McKenna Museum of African American Art, New Orleans, LA
Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, Athens, GA
Hampton University Museum, Hampton University, Hampton, VA
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA
Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH
Howard University Gallery of Art, Howard University, Washington, DC
Huntington Museum of Art, Huntington, WV
The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, NY
Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, NJ 
James E. Lewis Museum of Art, Morgan State University, Baltimore, MD
Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Kalamazoo, MI
La Salle University Art Museum, La Salle University, Philadelphia, PA
Legacy Museum, Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, AL
Los Angeles County Museum, Los Angeles, CA
The Menil Collection, Houston, TX
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WI
Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson, MS
Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, GA
Muscarelle Museum of Art, The College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, VA
Musée 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, New York, NY
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MI
New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, CT
New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA
Newark Museum, Newark, NJ
Norton Museum of Art, Palm Beach, FL
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
Petrucci Family Foundation, Asbury, NJ
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
RISD Museum, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI
Robert W. Woodruff Library, Atlanta University Center, Atlanta, GA
Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art, Hamilton College, Clinton, NY
Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, New York, NY
Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Spelman College, Atlanta, GA
Springfield Museum of Art, Springfield, OH
State Historical Museum of Iowa, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, Des Moines, IA
Telfair Museums, Savannah, GA
Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, IL
Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT
The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD
Weatherspoon Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, NC
The Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, PA
The White House Collection, The White House Historical Association, 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, Yale University, New Haven, CT