Welcome back to the Artists of Color series. A few artists that I have reached out to for interviews are in the process of working on their answers amidst busy schedules, so I'll be sharing the masterful work of Henry Ossawa Tanner with you for this week's spotlight. I find his use of color and composition absolutely breathtaking, and was stunned to read about his fascinating life story. Enjoy!
Henry Ossawa Tanner (b. 1859) was the first African-American painter to gain international acclaim. He was born in Pittsburgh, the first of five children. His father was a minister and abolitionist, and his mother was a former slave who escaped north to Pennsylvania through the Underground Railroad. Tanner was self taught in his youth, but sought out formal art training. Many artists refused to accept an African-American apprentice, so Tanner enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1879. He was the only black student. He studied under the direction of American realist painter Thomas Eakins, and quickly became one of his favorite students. One of Tanner's fellow students, who would also become one of his lifelong friends, was Robert Henri, one of the founders of the Ashcan School.
Although he gained confidence as an artist and began to sell his work, Tanner struggled to build his career amidst the racism in Philadelphia. In 1891, he left America and moved to Paris. There, he studied under Jean-Joseph Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens at the Academie Julian. He also joined the American Art Students Club of Paris, and quickly found acceptance in Parisian society. “In America, I’m Henry Tanner, Negro artist,” he said, “but in France, I’m ‘Monsieur Tanner, l’artiste américaine.‘” While studying in Paris, Tanner was inspired by the works of the French Realists, namely Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet, and their depictions of the rural poor. His style became a blend of his training in American Realism and French academic painting. He gained recognition for his powerful paintings of biblical scenes, as well as his poignant depictions of African-Americans as individuals with grace and dignity, which was rare during a time where stereotypes and caricatures were the norm.
In 1896, his painting Daniel in the Lion’s Den was accepted into the Salon de Paris, and his work began to be acquired by French museums. The following year, Tanner's Resurrection of Lazarus won a silver medal at the Salon and was purchased by the French Government for the Luxembourg Gallery. This painting received high praise and established his place in the artistic elite. After seeing this piece, his lifelong friend and patron Rodman Wanamaker offered to fund a research trip to the Middle East where Tanner could immerse himself in the settings where his biblical paintings took place. In 1908, his first solo exhibition of religious paintings in the United States was held at the American Art Galleries in New York. Tanner was made an associate member of the National Academy of Design in 1909, along with Mary Cassatt, and he was elected to full membership in 1927.
During World War I, Tanner enlisted in the Red Cross, and made sketches and paintings of the soldiers on the front lines. He was decorated by the French government in 1923 as Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, the highest national order of merit. He died peacefully at his home in Paris in 1937. Tanner's Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City now hangs in the Green Room at the White House, becoming the first painting by an African-American artist to have been purchased for the permanent collection of the White House.
"I decided on the spot that I would be an artist, and I assure you, it was no ordinary artist I had in mind."
-Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1909.