Art History: Henry O. Tanner.

One of my favorite artists is Henry Ossawa Tanner. He was born in 1859 in Pittsburgh, PA. His father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, was a minister and political activist. His mother had escaped to the north on the underground rail-road.

When he was 13 years old he saw a man painting in the park and decided he wanted to be a painter. No one would take him as an apprentice because there was no establishment for African-American painters, and no white artist who would allow a black artist to study under them. Tanner painted and drew on his own, and learned what he could by attending galleries in Pennsylvania. At the age of 20, Tanner enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He was the only African American student in the entire university. At the Academy, Tanner had the opportunity to study under Thomas Eakins, who painted his portrait in 1900.

Portrait of Henry Ossawa Tanner by Thomas Eakins
Portrait of Henry Ossawa Tanner by Thomas Eakins, 1900


After he finished his studies, Tanner had difficulty breaking into the art market because of his race. He was forced to move south to Georgia where there was a more established African American middle class, so there was a market for his art.

Georgia Landscape, 1889
Georgia Landscape, 1889

In Georgia, a patron took interest in Tanner and paid for him to take a trip to Europe. He intended to take the grand tour, going from London to Paris and then Rome. However, Tanner never made it to Rome. When Tanner experienced the art scene in Paris, he couldn’t tear himself away. He enrolled in the Académie Julian where he joined the American Students’ Club. The school did not work the same as the modern University. It was essentially a large studio, where students would cram in and try to study the model through a cloud of cigarette smoke. Students largely learned from one another, and were always in competition as apprentices to the master painters. Every once in a while, the master painter would come by and look at the students’ work. If they were lucky, the master would notice their work, if they were really lucky, the master would comment on their work, and for the master to praise the work would be next to miraculous.

Tanner did very well at Académie Julian. In Paris they did not have the same stigma against his race that he had faced in America (Mathews 55). To the French, Tanner was an American Artist, who was a member of the American Students’ Club. Ironically, in America, Tanner was labelled as a “negro” artist. Tanner’s race had forced him to leave his home state of Pennsylvania for Georgia, and now he had left his country. Tanner did not wish to be judged for the color of his skin, but for his ability as an artist (Mathews 250). To achieve this goal, he was forced to leave America, exiled for his art. He found this opportunity in France.

In 1893, Tanner contracted Typhoid Fever and returned to America to recover. During this visit he painted The Banjo Lesson. It is considered by many to be his greatest and most well known work, but wrongly so. It is an intimate depiction of African American life, but not the pinnacle of his painting ability. Its popularity comes from a desire for artwork that is undeniably African American, especially when it comes to an artist who identified as African American. The popularity of this painting shows historians’ preference for his identity over his artistic merit.

The Banjo Lesson, 1893
The Banjo Lesson, 1893

Some of Henry Tanner’s best and most successful work came after he returned to Paris and began to display artwork in the Paris Salon. His religious scenes were so popular in Paris that news of his success at the Salon in Paris reached America through newspapers and magazines. The messages told that Henry O. Tanner, an American artist had found success in Paris. He triumphed internationally and all of the sudden his race was of no consequence, he was heralded as an American. Truthfully, many of the readers had no idea that the American they were so proud of representing their country in Paris was not white.

Rizing of Lazarus, 1896
The Resurrection of Lazarus, 1896

Tanner married a woman named Jessie Macauley in France, who became his permanent model for the Virgin Mary in the rest of his paintings. In The Annunciation, she poses in reaction to the appearance of the angel, which is a beam of light. Tanner’s ability to paint light was second to none.

The Annunciation, 1898
The Annunciation, 1898

The couple moved to America for a short time, but were forced to return to Paris because of the abuse they received as an interracial couple in the United States.

Tanner’s later work shifts toward more blues and greens than the warm tones of his younger years. This painting, Gateway Tangier, is on display at the St. Louis Art Museum. It is my favorite painting in the museum. It is a small painting, so you might miss it if you aren’t careful.

Gateway, Tangier, 1912
Gateway, Tangier, 1912

Henry Ossawa Tanner was many things. He was the first African-American artist to gain national recognition. He was a husband, a father, and a man of God. Although he spent most of his life in France, he only considered himself to be American. Although he lived in exile from his own country due to his race, he was able to make a name for himself as a great American artist. For him, the only way to be recognized as an American artist was to live in France.


Baker, Kelly J. Henry Ossawa Tanner: Race, Religion, and Visual Mysticism. [S.l.]: Proquest, Umi Dissertatio, 2011. Print.

Mathews, Marcia M. Henry Ossawa Tanner, American Artist. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1994. Print.

One thought on “Art History: Henry O. Tanner.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s