Few famous painters in the history of art have backgrounds as fascinating but unknown as that of Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937).

Tanner’s mother was born a slave and remained one until her father was given freedom; Tanner’s father was a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In homage to the abolitionist, John Brown, Tanner’s parents gave him the middle name “Ossawa” after the town Osawatomie, Kansas, where Brown had killed several defenders of slavery.

Left: Thomas Eakins.  Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1900.   Oil on canvas, 24⅛” × 20¼”. The Hyde Collection.

After a childhood in the Philadelphia area, Henry Ossawa Turner enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1880, the most prestigious school for American painters.  He was its sole African American painter and the first academically trained one in the U.S. –  in one fell swoop.

For two years, Henry Ossawa Tanner studied with one of the most famous painters on the East Coast, the American realist painter, Thomas Eakins. Teaching Tanner was typical of Thomas Eakins’ progressive thinking: after providing a nude male model for his female art students, Eakins was forced to resign from the prestigious (and conservative) Academy.

But back to Henry Ossawa Tanner. He left post-Civil War Philadelphia for Paris in 1891. Three years later, Tanner’s paintings were exhibited in the 1894 Paris Salon, making him the first African American artist in any Paris Salon.

More recognition followed: his The Raising of Lazarus won a medal at the 1897 Salon,while Nicodemus Visiting Jesus won the Lippincott Prize from the Pennsylvania Academy for Fine Arts in 1900.

Henry Ossawa Tanner.  The Banjo Lesson, 1893.  Oil on canvas, 49 by 35 1/2″.  Hampton University Museum, Hampton, VA. 

Tanner remained an expatriate in Paris, frequently exhibited in Paris as well as the United States, befriended famous painters like Paul Gauguin, and was a leader of an artist’s colony in the French countryside. When World War I erupted, Tanner served with the American Red Cross in France and was honored by the French government with its Legion of Honor award. 

The Banjo Lesson is one of Tanner’s most famous paintings, and was likely made when he visited Philadelphia in 1893 and painted “mostly Negro subjects”.  Lesson reveals the influence of Thomas Eakins’ uncompromising attention to detail in portraiture. Tanner uses this Realist portrait style to deflate the stereotypical image of banjo playing by African Americans for entertainment of white Americans.  While the background is loose, long brushstrokes, Tanner carefully carves the two faces and bathes the scene in almost sacred lighting.   Tanner defuses the stereotype by making The Banjo Lesson a scene of Everyman passing tradition to a child.

In the The Thankful Poor, Tanner again combines the Realist focus on carefully observed nature with Tanner’s desire to dignify the people with whom he was raised. The man, boy and objects in the room are portrayed in greatest detail; the light pouring in from the window creates a sense of spiritual stillness.

Henry Ossawa Tanner.  The Thankful Poor, 1894.  Oil on canvas, 2′ 11 1/2″ by 3′ 8 1/4″.  Collection of William H. and Camille Cosby.

Tanner was somewhat forgotten in art history for three decades after his death in 1937.  The Smithsonian Institution showed his works in 1969 in yet another first for Henry Ossawa Tanner — the first major solo art exhibition of a black painter in the U. S. In 1991 the Philadelphia Museum of Art hosted a retrospective.  With this PAFA show, perhaps Tanner will finally earn his due as one of the most famous painters of the 20th century.