The most distinguished African-American artist of the 19th century, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937), was also the first artist of his race to achieve international acclaim. Tanner was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) from 1879 to 1885, and is the subject of a stunning career retrospective exhibition that bring his greatest works together for the first time in a generation.
Tanner was born on June 21, 1859, in Pittsburgh, Pa., to Benjamin Tucker and Sarah Miller Tanner. Tanner’s father was a college-educated teacher and minister who later became a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopalian Church. Sarah Tanner was a former slave whose mother had sent her north via the Underground Railroad. Tanner’s family moved frequently during his early years when his father was assigned to various churches and schools.
In 1864, Tanner’s family settled in Philadelphia where his early artistic interests were developed. At age 13, Tanner decided to become an artist when he saw a painter at work during a walk in Fairmount Park near his home. Throughout his teens, Tanner painted and drew constantly in his spare time and tried to look at art as much as possible in Philadelphia art galleries.
He also studied briefly with two of the city’s minor painters. In 1880, when Tanner was 21, he enrolled in the prestigious PAFA where he studied with a group of master professors, including Thomas Eakins. It was Eakins who exerted the greatest influence on Tanner’s early style. Tanner left the Pennsylvania Academy before graduating to pursue the idea of combining business with art. In 1888, he moved to Atlanta and established a modest photography gallery where he attempted to earn a semi-artistic living by selling drawings, making photographs and teaching art classes at Clark College. In spite of his combined efforts, Tanner’s Atlanta venture barely generated enough to provide living expenses.
In1891, the young artist traveled to Europe, and after brief stays in Liverpool and London, Tanner arrived in Paris. He was so impressed by this center of art and artists that he abandoned his plans to study in Rome. In Paris, Tanner enrolled in the Academie Julian where the painters Jean Paul Laurens and Jean Joseph Benjamin-Constant were among his teachers. It was not long before he painted two of his most important works depicting African-American subjects, “The Banjo Lesson” of 1893 and “The Thankful Poor” of 1894. During the summers of 1892 and 1893, Tanner left Paris and lived in isolated rural areas in Brittany. His best-known paintings from that period are “The Bagpipe Lesson” (1894) and “The Young Sabot Maker” of 1895. Both depict French peasants, and Tanner assimilated the inhabitants of his rural French environment into his works as he had done previously in the mountains of Highlands, North Carolina.
In 1895, Tanner painted “Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” which won an honorable mention in the Paris Salon the same year. Two years later he completed “Resurrection of Lazarus,” which so impressed Rodman Wanamaker (of Wanamaker Store’s fame), that he decided to finance the first of Tanner’s several trips to the Holy Land. Before leaving, Tanner sent his “Resurrection of Lazarus” to the Paris Salon where it was awarded a third class medal and was purchased by the French government for exhibition at the Luxembourg Gallery and eventually entered the collection of the Louvre.
For decades, Tanner received critical acclaim and won prizes in the French Salon for what contemporary critics called his “modern” and "religious” paintings. He was the first African-American painter to gain international acclaim. He was also a leader of the international artist community of Etlepes of Northern France, and received the patronage of the French government, gilded age millionaires, universities, the AME church and major American museums all during his lifetime.
Spurred by his newly found acclaim, Tanner visited Philadelphia for several months in 1893. The visit, however, convinced him that he could not fight racial prejudice. Tanner returned to Paris and focused on painting religious subjects and landscapes. In 1899, Tanner married Jessie Olssen, a white opera singer from San Francisco, who he had met in Paris. The couple’s only child, Jesse Ossawa, was born in New York in 1903. Their marriage may have influenced Tanner’s decision to settle permanently in France, where the family divided its time between Paris and a farm near Etaples in Normandy.
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ (PAFA) current “Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit” exhibition displays a prime example of Tanner's skill with the 1917 portrait Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), who was a longtime friend of the Tanner family. Washington once wrote of the artist: “Tanner is proud of his race. He feels deeply that as the representative of his people, he is on trail to establish their right to be taken seriously as in the world of art.” Washington also thought highly of Tanner's sister, Halle, in 1891 he hire her to teach at Tuskegee, and she became the first woman to pass the medical boards in the state of Alabama.
A member of the artist's family, Lewis Tanner Moore Jr., noted during the press preview that his ancestor's legacy highlights the complexity of racial prejudice. “It's wonderful to see this Tanner exhibition and to think about the arch of time and the changes that have occurred, but still some of the challenges are in place,” said Moore. “Tanner, like many African Americans in many fields, had to operate on a number of different levels—he had not only to compete esthetically, but he had to find a way to skirt the dominant cultures refusal to acknowledge the achievement of African Americans.”
During the final decades of Tanner’s career he enjoyed consistent acclaim. In his later years, Tanner was a symbol of hope and inspiration for African-American leaders and young Black artists, many of whom visited him in Paris. On May 25, 1937, Tanner died at his home in Paris.
“Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit” is on exhibition at Fisher Brooks Gallery, Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), 128 N. Broad Street, from Jan. 28 to April 15. The nationally touring exhibition, major catalog, and attendant educational programming, will offer free admission on Sundays and extended hours every Wednesday evening. For more information, visit www.pafa.org