Henry Ossawa Tanner

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About this artist

An American expatriate painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner was one of the most important black artists of the premodern period. The son of an African Methodist Episcopal bishop, he first studied art in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with THOMAS EAKINS, 1880-82. During the 1880s he attempted to support himself as an illustrator, photographer, and art instructor, while exhibiting at the National Academy of Design and Pennsylvania Academy. His early paintings were genre scenes of blacks.
In 1891 Tanner went to Paris to study, enrolling at the Académie Julian and studying with Jean-Joseph-Benjamin Constant (1845-1902) and jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921). He began exhibiting at the Paris Salon in 1894 and by 1896 received his first recognition when Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 -1904) singled out Daniel in the Lions’ Den, by 1896 (unlocated), for praise. The following year his Raising of Lazarus, 1997 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), received a medal and was bought by the French government, assuring his success. Thereafter he specialized in religious paintings, New Testament subjects in particular. To assure the accuracy of his paintings he traveled to the Levant in 1897 to study the landscape, people, and customs of Palestine. He returned the following year to sketch around Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. A later trip to Morocco and Egypt resulted in his expanding his themes to include Moroccan city views.

Tanner felt that American racial prejudice interfered with his career and so settled permanently in France, only occasionally visiting his native country, He became a popular figure in the American expatriate community and an active member of French groups such as the Société Artistique de Picardie, of which he was president in 1913. Unlike most Americans, he remained abroad during the First World War, working with the Red Cross. Tanner was one of the last important American exponents of late nineteenth-century romanticism.

Archiv. Am. Art, Henry Ossawa Tanner Papers § William S. Scarborough, "Henry Ossian [sic] Tanner," Southern Workman 31 (December 1902): 661-70 § H. 0. Tanner, "The Story of an Artist’s Life," World’s Work 18 (June 1909): 11661-66; (July 1909): 11769-75 § Marcia M. Mathews, Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist, Negro American Biographies and Autobiographies Series (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969) § Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American Art, and others, circulated by Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, Sharing Traditions: Five Black Artists in Nineteenth-Century America, exh. cat., 1985, published by Smithsonian Institution Press, text by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, pp. 99-116.