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ARTISTS WE LOVE: Henry Ossawa Tanner

ARTISTS WE LOVE: Henry Ossawa Tanner

WHO: Henry Ossawa Tanner

WHAT: Painter

WHERE: Pennsylvania, United States

WHEN: 21 June 1859 – 25 May 1937

As the first African-American painter to be recognized for his work internationally, Henry Ossawa Tanner has been called “the greatest African American painter to date” and is most well-known for his biblical works and depictions of everyday lives of African Americans. The son of a minister and former slave who escaped to freedom via the Underground Railroad, Tanner’s passion for art started around the age of 13 and in 1879 he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The only black student and studying during a time when racism was prevalent in all areas of society, Tanner succeeded in not only perfecting his craft, but also befriending the likes of Robert Henri and Thomas Eakins, the latter of whom was his teacher for a period at the Academy.

In 1891, Tanner left to study in Paris which is around the time his reputation as an artist began to grow tremendously and in 1896 he had his first painting, “The Lions’ Den” was accepted into the prestigious Salon art exhibition. His work caught the eye of Rodman Wanamaker, an American art critic, who ultimately sponsored Tanner’s first of many trips to the Middle East as a means to inspire more detailed and realistic biblical paintings and in 1897 he was awarded a third-class medal at the Salon for his work “Resurrection of Lazarus” which now hangs in Musée d’Orsay. Though he maintained connections with the United States and became involved in the NAACP, he lived out the rest of his life in Paris until his passing in 1937.

“Many of the artists who have represented Negro life have seen only the comic, ludicrous side of it, and have lacked sympathy with and appreciation for the warm big heart that dwells within such a rough exterior.” -Henry Ossawa Tanner

The Banjo Lesson, 1893


The Good Shepard, 1902-1903


Daniel in the Lions’ Den, 1907–1918


The Seine, 1902


Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City, 1885


You can find a curated selection of more great Tanner works in our new gallery dedicated to him, “Henry Ossawa Tanner,” now streaming on Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Samsung.

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