Henry Ossawa Tanner was an African American painter. Belonging to a religious family, he developed an interest towards art when he was a teenager. His ability to depict landscapes and biblical themes earned him international fame. While on a tour to Europe, he visited Paris. What attracted him most in Paris was the freedom from racial discrimination of its artistic world. There he studied under renowned academic painters like Jean-Paul Laurens and Benjamin Constant for a brief period. His early paintings like ‘The Banjo Lesson’ and ‘The Thankful Poor’ reflect the influence of realist artist Thomas Eakins on him. His ‘The Banjo Lesson’ denotes sharing of knowledge through its simple drawing style. Most of his famous works are his depiction of the daily life of blacks and each of these art works represent the black people in a dignified manner. His visit to places like Tangier and the Holy Land inspired him to create paintings with religious themes. His paintings with religious themes include ‘Daniel in the Lions’ Den’. The painting of ‘The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water’ mirrors his sense of photography. As an artist, he was the recipient of numerous prestigious honours like the Order of the Legion Honor.
Childhood & Early Life
Born in a religious African-American family of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States, Henry Ossawa Tanner was the eldest of nine children of Benjamin Tucker Tanner, a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and Sarah Tanner.
His family shifted to Philadelphia when he was very young. He studied at the Robert Vaux School. Later he attended several African-American schools where he studied liberal arts curriculum.
He was attracted towards arts since his early childhood days. As a teenager, he dreamt of becoming a painter. Moreover, his poor health condition made him to stay at home most of the time and he utilized that time for drawing works.
In 1876, he drew paintings of harbour scenes, portraits of landscapes and various animals that he noticed in the zoo of Philadelphia. After his recovery, he took admission at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1880.
There he studied under the guidance of Thomas Eakins, a renowned American sculptor and realist painter who had a great influence on Henry’s life and work .
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After completing his study, Henry moved to Atlanta, Georgia to teach art. There he worked as a teacher at Clark University. At that time he made a failed attempt to open a photography studio.
With the help of Joseph C. Hartzell, a bishop, he exhibited some of his paintings in Cincinnati. In 1891, he went on a tour across Europe with the patronage of that bishop and Mrs. Hartzell.
In the same year, his visit to Paris changed his entire life. He was fascinated by France’s artistic world that was much advanced than that of America’s art world. He decided to stay in Paris for the rest of his life.
In Paris, he attended the Academie Julian, an art school. Colours like blue and blue-green played a dominant role in most of his paintings that he created at that time. He also started using the artistic technique of light and shade during that period.
In 1893, he came back to the United States to deliver a paper on African Americans and art at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In the same year, he created one of his famous works ‘The Banjo Lesson’ while he was in Philadelphia.
Through this work, he highlighted the role of blacks as entertainers in American culture. In the next year, he created ‘The Thankful Poor’. In this year, he displayed his paintings at the annual Paris salon.
In 1896, he was honoured with an award for his creation of the painting ‘Daniel in the Lions’ Den’ that depicts the biblical theme of the “Old Testament”. In 1898, he created ‘The Annunciation’.
In 1899, Booker T. Washington, an African-American educator and author published an article on Tanner. The publication of this article played a significant role in securing him an important position in the art industry of America.
During that time, he displayed his creations through a number of exhibitions in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Chicago and several art centres of America. ‘Abraham’s Oak’ was his one of the remarkable creations that he drew in 1905.
In the same year, he also created ‘The Two Disciples at the Tomb’. He arranged a solo show for his religious paintings at the American Art Galleries in New York in 1908.
In 1918, he skilfully handled the image of sunlight in the painting titled ‘Birthplace of Joan of Arc at Domremy-la-Pucelle’. In 1925, an African-American journal titled “The Crisis” depicted him as a representative of African-American creative persons.
He created his masterpiece ‘The Banjo Lesson’ in 1893. The drawing shows a young boy is learning to play banjo from an aged gentleman. The image is truly praiseworthy mainly for its usage of light and shades in a meaningful way.
Awards & Achievements
In 1897 he painted ‘The Raising of Lazarus’ which is based on a biblical theme. This piece of art work won a medal at the Paris Salon in the same year.
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts honoured him with Lippincott Prize in 1900, for his work ‘Nicodemus Visiting Jesus’, created in 1899. This painting describes the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus, a biblical figure.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1899, he tied the nuptial knot with Jessie Ollsen, an American opera singer. Their son Jesse Ossawa Tanner was born in 1903. Tanner passed away at his home in Paris.
The middle name of this famous African American artist was named after white militant Abolitionist John Brown’s nickname Osawatomie Brown. John Brown was given this name to honour the memory of the Battle of Osawatomie, Kansas.