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Henry Ossawa Tanner – African-American Artistic Pioneer

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Thankful Poor, 1894, private collection


Henry Ossawa Tanner – African-American Artistic Pioneer

The Thankful Poor by Henry Ossawa Tanner

The Thankful Poor, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1894, private collection.

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), the first African-American to become an internationally successful artist, was known for his beautiful religious paintings and scenes of African-American life. He is often compared to Old Masters such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio because of his subjects and use of dramatic lighting. (Lewis 46).

photo of Henry Ossawa Tanner

Frederick Gutekunst, photographic print of Henry Ossawa Tanner 1907, Smithsonian Institution.

A minister’s son from Pennsylvania, Tanner studied with influential American realist Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts before travelling to Europe in 1891. He settled in Paris and studied at the famous Académie Julien. When he returned to America a few years later, he was respected as an artist but found himself discouraged by the nation’s widespread racism. He moved back to Paris, which was much more accepting, and lived there for the rest of his life. His works were exhibited with great success in both countries. Although he was honored in America with prizes, exhibitions, and membership in the National Academy of Design, his paintings were often displayed separately from those of his white colleagues. No such thing ever happened in France, where he won a medal from the Paris Salon of 1897 – a huge honor.

Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures, Henry Ossawa Tanner, c. 1909, Dallas Museum of Art.

Although Tanner painted a lot of different subjects, he is primarily known for a few types. In his genre paintings, he depicted the lives of rural African-Americans in the south, showing everyday events with soft elegance and dignity. His Biblical paintings reflected his deep religious faith using a combination of brilliant lighting effects and detailed naturalism. He also made many beautiful landscape paintings. Although Tanner experienced racism in America, he did not depict social or political themes in his art, and he was not very involved in politics of any kind. Instead, he cared far more about beauty, technical perfection, and religious ideas.

Sources: Craven, Wayne. American Art: History and Culture. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2003. p. 346-7.

Patton, Sharon F. African-American Art. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. p. 98-103.

Lewis, Samella. African American Art and Artists. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2003. p. 44-51.

Bearden, Romare & Harry Henderson. A History of African-American Artists from 1792 to the Present. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993. p. 78-109.

Alexandra believes that enjoying the art of the past is the closest she can get to time travel, only much safer. When she’s not being an art historian, she can usually be found ice skating and dancing. Visit her at ascholarlyskater.com.


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