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 Henry Ossawa Tanner  (1859 - 1937)

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Lived/Active: Pennsylvania/Kansas / France      Known for: painting-religious, Orientalism, genre, figure, landscape

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Ad Code: 2
Henry Ossawa Tanner
from Auction House Records.
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
America's first internationally renowned African-American artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in Pittsburgh to a well-educated and devoutly religious family.  When Henry was age 13, his father, the Reverend Benjamin Tucker Tanner, moved the family to Philadelphia.  With the support of his parents and inspiration from the art of the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition, he enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy to study with Thomas Eakins who became a close friend.

Tanner briefly painted animals and was determined to become the "American Landseer" in response to the demand for animal portraits.  Between 1886 and 1887 Tanner was an illustrator for Harper Brothers, a publishing firm willing to advance black artists and writers.  He then moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where he briefly and unsuccessfully ran a photography studio, but by 1891 he turned back to painting and sailed for France.

In Paris he studied at the Julian Academy with Benjamin Constant and J.P. Laurens.  He received many honors and was considered a 'strong man' at Julian's before his first Salon picture.  He traveled to celebrated locations as Pont-Aven, but remained relatively unswayed by contemporary art movements.  Tanner discovered the Salons and their power to advance a painter's career, both abroad and in America. The acceptance of his painting, The Banjo Lesson by the 1894 Salon marked both a "turning point in his career and a shift in emphasis in his choice of subject, for it was his first major exploration of the pathos of the black in society." 

He returned briefly to Philadelphia but decided Paris was his natural home.  At first, he was highly successful with genre painting but switched to religious subjects in the mid-1890's and traveled extensively in the Near East to absorb Biblical references.

In 1899, Tanner married Jessie Macauley Olssen, a white Californian, and decided to make France his home for the remainder of his life.  He feared that Americans would not be accepting of an interracial marriage.  In 1908, he wrote of France, "There is a breadth, a generosity, an obsolete cosmopolitanism about her recognition of the fine arts, which bars no nationality, no race, no school, or variation of artistic method."

Sources include:
Antiques Magazine
Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art
Exhibition Record (Museums, Institutions and Awards):
Paris Solon, 1894, 1896, 1897.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born Pittsburg, PA, June 21, 1859; died Paris, France, May 25, 1937. Painter. An important African-American artist who studied with Thomas Eakins from 1880 to 1882 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He then worked in Philadelphia, PA and Atlanta, GA, where he ran a photography studio and taught at Clark College. In 1891 Tanner traveled to Paris, enrolling at the Académie Julian where he received instruction from Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens. He first exhibited his figure paintings at the Paris Salon of 1894 and by 1897 received a medal for the Raising of Lazarus (1897; ex-Pal. Luxembourg, Paris), which was bought by the French government. Tanner's family was living in Kansas City in 1897 where his father was a Bishop in the A.M.E. church. Tanner visited for several months and painted watercolors of the area. Tanner retained dual allegiance, living in France and exhibiting in America.
National Museum of African Art.

Susan Craig, "Biographical Dictionary of Kansas Artists (active before 1945)"
Sain, Lydia. Kansas Artists, compiled by Lydia Sain from 1932 to 1948. Typed Manuscript, 1948.; Mosby, Dewey F. Henry Ossawa Tanner. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1991.
This and over 1,750 other biographies can be found in Biographical Dictionary of Kansas Artists (active before 1945) compiled by Susan V. Craig, Art & Architecture Librarian at University of Kansas.

Biography from Roger King Fine Art:
Henry O. Tanner was an illustrator, painter, photographer, and educator.  The son of Rev. Benjamin Tucker Tanner, Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, he was born in Pittsburgh and raised in Philadelphia. 

In 1872 Tanner decided to become an artist, and in 1880 he was accepted at the Pennsylvania Acadamy of Fine Arts. He was a student of Thomas Eakins, and the two artists established a close relationship.  As an African-American artist, Tanner found it difficult to establish patronage in Philadelphia or in Atlanta, where he initially opened a photography studio.  During a trip to the North Carolina mountains, his paintings of local black residents impressed Bishop Joseph Hartzel, who became the first of several white benefactors.  Hartzel purchased Tanner's entire exhibition, which enabled the artist to travel abroad. 

He studied for several years at the Academie Julian in Paris, where his work became more personal and sensitive.  Around 1896 Tanner began to focus on religious subjects, a change that brought critical and financial success.  His overwhelming acceptance at the Paris Salon brought with it awards and honors and the support of affluent French patrons. 

Following a trip to the Holy Land, Tanner's style changed dramatically, developing into a mature blend of spirituality and impressionist color, light, and form.  Although his work was earning the increasing notice of American institutions, Tanner decided to make Paris his permanent home after his 1898 marriage to a white California woman, believing France to be more hospitable to an interracial couple and a black artist. 

As his fame grew, so did the number of his exhibits and his professional affiliations and honors.  He was the first black artist elected to the National Academy and was made a Knight of France's Legion of Honor.  His painting "The Raising of Lazarus" was purchased by the French government for the Luxembourg Museum.  Among the many museums containing examples of his work are the Louvre, the Musee d'Orsay, the Metropolitan Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

c Roger King Fine Art

Biography from Michael Rosenfeld Gallery:
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Henry Ossawa Tanner overcame the objections of his father, an African-Methodist Episcopal Bishop, and chose a career in painting over the ministry. In 1891, after studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts with Thomas Eakins, Tanner left the United States for Paris, where he achieved success with his paintings of spiritual landscapes and luminous depictions of religious and allegorical themes.

Although Tanner's work was frequently included in group exhibitions in the United States and abroad, it was not until 1908 that he had his first major solo exhibition at American Art Galleries in New York. In 1923, he received France's highest honor when he was made Chevalier by the Order of the Legion of Honor. In 1927, Tanner was elected a full member of the National Academy of Design, the first African-American to receive that distinction.

Tanner's accomplishments as an African-American artist living abroad inspired numerous other African-Americans artists, many of whom followed him to Europe in search of opportunity and recognition. In 1990, the Philadelphia Museum of Art organized a major traveling retrospective of his work, and in 1995, a painting by Tanner was purchased for The White House, making him the first African-American artist in the collection.

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Henry Tanner is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Black American Artists
San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915
Paris Pre 1900

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