“I will preach with my brush” – Henry Ossawa Tanner
In 1996, President Bill Clinton acquired Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City for the White House’s permanent collection. It became the first piece of work by an African-American artist to be part of the permanent collection. But when Tanner first created the painting in 1895, gaining recognition as an African-American artist was challenging. However, through dedication to his craft and an undying faith, Tanner became the first African-American artist to receive international acclaim.
Tanner was born in Pittsburgh on June 21, 1859 to Benjamin Tucker Tanner, a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and Sarah Miller Tanner, a former slave who escaped on the Underground Railroad. His parents gave him the middle name “Ossawa” in His sister, Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson, would become the first African-American woman to receive a license to practice medicine in the state of Alabama.
Throughout Tanner’s early childhood, his family moved often as his father served various congregations. However, by 1864, the Tanner family settled in Philadelphia. It was here that his interest in art began to develop. As a teenager Tanner began painting as a hobby–observing art throughout Philadelphia’s art galleries.
In 1880, Tanner enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where he studied under the tutelage of artists such as Thomas Eakins.
Before graduating, Tanner left the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts because he wanted go into business selling art. Tanner established a photography gallery in Atlanta where he sold drawings, offered his services as a photographer and taught art classes at Clark College. While living in Atlanta, Tanner was introduced to Bishop Joseph Crane Hartzell and his wife, who would become his patrons. Soon after, Tanner sold his gallery and moved to the Highlands in North Carolina. Living in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Tanner earned a living as a photographer. Tanner returned to Atlanta and continued teaching art classes at Clark College for the next two years.
In 1891, with the help of Bishop Hartzell, Tanner traveled to Rome where he was expected to study art. Instead, Tanner settled in Paris and enrolled in the Academie Julian where he worked with Jean Paul Laurens and Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant. It was during this period that Tanner painted Banjo Lesson, which was inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, Banjo Song. Other works such as The Thankful Poor, The Bagpipe Lesson and The Young Sabot Maker of 1895 were also produced during this time and received positive criticism by art critics. In 1895, Tanner’s painting Daniel in the Lion’s Den won an honorable mention in the Paris Salon.
Two years later, Rodman Wanamaker, a Philadelphia businessman financed Tanner’s trips to Israel after viewing his painting, Resurrection of Lazarus. The painting was awarded a third class medal. The French government purchased the painting for an exhibit at the Luxembourg Gallery. Soon after, the painting was featured in the Louvre.
In 1899, Tanner married opera singer Jessie Olssen. The couple had a child in 1903 named Jesse Ossawa. Tanner chose to settle his family in France–believing that Europeans were more accepting of interracial relationships. In addition, Tanner was overwhelmed by the racial prejudice that African-Americans faced in the United States. Of his experiences in France, Tanner once said, “I am simply M. Tanner, an American artist. Nobody knows or cares what was the complexion of my forebears. I live and work there in terms of absolute social equality.”
Throughout the rest of Tanner’s life as an artist, he enjoyed many accolades including
- 1900: Tanner’s painting Daniel in the Lion’s Den, received a silver medal at the Univeral Exposition in Paris.
- 1901: The painting received another silver medal at the Pan American Exhibition in Buffalo.
- 1908: Tanner returned to the United States for his one-man exhibition of religious paintings. The exhibition was held at the American Art Galleries in New York City.
- 1910: Elected member of the National Academy of Design.
- 1923: Appointed honorary chevalier of the Order of the Legion of Honor, which is France’s highest honor.
- 1925: Appeared on the cover of The Crisis with images of men such as W.E.B. Du Bois
, Frederick Douglass and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
- 1927: Became the first African-American to be appointed as a full member of academe to the National Academy of Design.
Tanner died on May 25, 1937 at his home in Paris.