Biography of Henry Ossawa Tanner
Childhood and Education
Henry Ossawa Tanner was the first of nine children born to Sarah Elizabeth Miller and Benjamin Tucker Tanner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Religion and racial justice were important aspects of Tanner's early family life. His father, a deeply religious man, served as a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal church and his mother, who had been born a slave, helped to organize one of the first missionary organizations for black women. Even Tanner's own middle name supports these familial beliefs as it was derived from the Kansas town of Osawatomie where abolitionist John Brown began his career advocating against slavery.
Tanner developed an interest in art at an early age and could trace it back to a single incident when during a park walk with his father, he witnessed an artist painting a landscape outdoors at an easel. Reflecting on this years later, Tanner stated, "...a long conversation that night [with my father] produced fifteen cents and this, early the next morning, secured from a common paint shop some dry colors and a couple of scraggy brushes. Then I was out immediately for a sketch. I went straight to the spot where I had seen the artist the day before....Coming home that night, I examined the sketch from all points of view, upside down and down side up decidedly admiring and well content with my first effort."
As education was important and highly valued by his family, initially Tanner's father felt his son's passion for art should be considered only a hobby. So, when Tanner did not want to enter the church after graduating from school in 1877, an apprenticeship was arranged for him at a family friend's flour business. The work proved laborious and an unhappy Tanner soon became ill. Empathizing with his son's mental and physical distress, Tanner's father finally agreed to support his career as an artist.
Ready to embrace his artistic dream, twenty-year-old Tanner enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts as its first African American attendee. A little over a year later, in January 1881, he became a student in the Realists Thomas Eakins' life drawing class. Under Eakins' tutelage, he changed his initial interest in marine scenes to an interest in painting animals and figures. According to curator Anna O. Marley, "Tanner was so devoted to animal painting that he bought a sheep to serve as a model for his pastoral compositions." Tanner flourished while studying and as Marley explains, his "...first stab at the elevated academic genre of history painting began under the tutelage of Eakins. The two men had a mutual respect for each other, and Eakins had a profound early influence on Tanner...." A decade later, Eakins would pay tribute to the rising young artist by painting his former student's portrait.
During his schooling, and in the years directly after he left the academy, money remained an issue for Tanner. So, in addition to spending summers working in Atlantic City at resorts, he attempted, rather unsuccessfully, to sell drawings to publishers. In 1889, having finished his studies, he moved to Atlanta, Georgia and established a photography studio. While the business failed almost as soon as it opened, he did meet his future life-changing patrons Bishop and Mrs. Joseph Crane Hartzell and Wesley N. Clifford. Clifford, a teacher at Clark University in North Carolina, invited Tanner to join him there for a time to teach, which he did for a year. Perhaps more importantly, Mrs. Hartzell was responsible for an exhibition of Tanner's works in Cincinnati, after which she and her husband provided the funds for him to travel to Europe for further art study; something Tanner desperately longed to do.
When Tanner set sail for Europe on January 4, 1891 it was with the intention to settle in Rome. However, after first briefly visiting London, he traveled on to Paris where he was so taken with the city that he decided to stay. Once settled, he enrolled at the Académie Julian to study art. Tanner immediately took to his studies under the teachers Jean-Joseph Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens. He became fascinated with the Symbolist and Impressionist art movements as well as the French countryside after taking summer trips to Brittany. It was also at this time that he began to seriously work on genre paintings, popular works of the time that depicted scenes from everyday life, including his well-known The Banjo Lesson in 1893.
Tanner found he could easily settle into life in Paris and quickly developed a circle of both French and American friends. Importantly, after joining the American Art Club, he met American department store owner Rodman Wannamaker who became a patron and supporter. He also began exhibiting in Paris salons and, after a few years, he made the seminal decision to focus on painting religious scenes; something for which he would become best known. Key paintings followed including the now lost Daniel in the Lions' Den (1896), which, as his debut in this genre, caused quite a stir among the Paris Salon viewing public. Many have tried to understand the reason for this shift in subject matter from scenes of normal life to visual representations of spiritual and biblical narratives and scenes. Some suggest it was a way to process his beliefs and pay tribute to his foundational religious upbringing, but the style was also burgeoning in Europe at the time and he had become interested in these paintings as a student at both the salons and on visits to Paris museums.
Tanner's popularity as an American artist in Paris grew rapidly, boosted by a distinct honor from the French government when it purchased his painting The Resurrection of Lazarus (1896). As his reputation in the religious genre painting style grew, Wanamaker sponsored a trip for Tanner to the Middle East which he took in 1897. It was the first of two such journeys (the second was a year later) where he quickly absorbed all the sights and culture that the Holy Land had to offer. These trips inspired paintings steeped in the Orientalism style that had begun to fascinate Tanner. These works also became popular in his native country and in 1897 his Lazarus painting was reproduced in Harper's Weekly magazine.
As his professional life blossomed, so did Tanner's personal life. In 1898, Tanner met Jessie Macauley Olssen, an American singer of Swedish descent who was on a vacation with her family in France. They would marry a year later on December 14, 1899, and set up their life together in Paris. The city proved a perfect place for Tanner as he felt he could be himself in a place where his art was judged on its merits alone without his African American heritage entering the equation. It was also a receptive city for his family since his marriage to a white woman fifteen years his junior and the birth of his racially blended child, a son named Jesse who was born in September of 1903, would not have been widely accepted in America at the time.
Despite the discrimination he felt he would have endured in America, Tanner's reputation continued to grow there and on a return visit home in 1902, his friend and patron Atherton Curtis convinced him to try settling in Mount Kisco, New York where an artist colony had been established. The pull of Paris was too strong however, and Tanner and his family returned to Europe after only six months. He did however like the camaraderie he had experienced with fellow artists. So, in addition to his apartment and studio in Paris, Tanner bought a home in Trépied, France which was near an artist colony in Étaples of which he became an active part and where he and his family spent many summers.
Once settled back in Europe, Tanner felt comfortable taking a second series of trips to further his interest in Orientalism. Just as his prior visits to the Holy Land had inspired his art, beginning around 1910 Tanner embarked on trips to North Africa where he was especially drawn to the sights and sounds of the markets in Morocco and the architecture of Tangiers. He captured these impressions through his paintings of the period.
Tanner's productivity came to an abrupt halt with the outbreak of World War I. Unlike many Americans living in Europe at the time, Tanner did not return home but did initially believe it would be safer to leave Trépied and briefly sought refuge in England. However, he and his family soon found they longed to return to France and did so after only a brief stay. He also struggled creatively during the early years of the war and according to Mathews, "...Tanner found it difficult to paint. The atmosphere of war was not conducive to creative work, for art was of no interest to people who lived in daily apprehension of death." Although being in his fifties prevented him from serving, Tanner felt strongly about doing his part. So, in 1917 he became a lieutenant in the Farm Service Bureau of the American Red Cross and led a campaign to build a vegetable garden around the military hospital and empower recovering wounded soldiers to feel productive in helping to tend and grow the crops. His service continued in the fall of 1918 when Tanner joined the Bureau of Publicity and served as an artist who sketched scenes of the war.
After the war ended, Tanner returned to a daily rhythm of creating new work in both his Paris studio and at home in Trépied. Despite the art world's move toward more modern styles of painting, his reputation and the demand for his work, both in Europe and America, continued to grow. In December of 1923 Tanner made his last visit to America to promote his work. He was also, in that year, elected Chevalier of Legion of Honor by the French government; an honor in which he took great pride.
Sadly, several tragedies and difficulties befell Tanner in his later years. Jessie, who had returned to America for a visit with her family while her husband stayed behind to work, and who had been feeling tired and generally unwell at the time, grew seriously ill. She was diagnosed with pleurisy. After receiving treatment and recovering for a period, she would return to France and die on September 8, 1925. This loss devastated Tanner, and according to Mathews, "Jessie's death left a vacuum in Henry Tanner's life that was never to be filled. Although he did his best to work, for months he found himself incapable of it."
Tanner was able to find comfort in his relationship with his son who had graduated from Cambridge University with an engineering degree but who, less than a year, later grew ill from nervous exhaustion and had to leave his job. Tanner would devote a great deal of his energy into helping his son get well, even traveling with him during the periods he had to be moved to a nursing home in Saujon, France to recuperate.
Eventually, as his son found healing, Tanner was able to begin painting seriously again. However, the Great Depression impacted his ability to sell his paintings and he suffered some financial setbacks. Still, he painted and exhibited his work and continued the tradition he had begun before the war of meeting with and mentoring many young African-American artists who came to see him in Paris such as Palmer Hayden and William H. Johnson.
Tanner died in his sleep at the age of seventy-seven. The calm, quiet life he had lived was echoed in his death and according to Mathews, "no death could have been more peaceful or less free of suffering. When his friends read in the newspapers that he was gone they were shocked by the suddenness of it. They knew Tanner was old and not very strong, but death had seemed far away. Yet they knew it was the way he would have wanted to go, with the paint still fresh on his last canvas."
The Legacy of Henry Ossawa Tanner
Henry Ossawa Tanner left a great mark on the art world socially as the first African-American artist to achieve international prestige and status. But also, most notably, he redefined religious painting for a modern era. As curator Anna O. Marley explains in describing Tanner's legacy, he spent, "...more than a decade as the leader of an international artist's colony in northern France; [had] a career as a technical innovator who used modern painting techniques to create a transcendent practice that to this day defies easy classification; and finally, [he firmly established] his status as America's preeminent religious artist during the height of the genre's popularity."
Despite his reluctance to be viewed through the lens of his race, it cannot be argued that he left a profound influence on the next generations of black artists, offering them proof that success could be achieved. Even in his own lifetime, many artists traveled to meet with him while he worked in France which helped to shape their careers including Palmer Hayden, William H. Johnson, William Edouard Scott, and Hale Woodruff. Although he was not a direct contributor to the first collective African American art movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, his very existence and accomplishments helped pave the way for it. Contemporary artists today continue to draw inspiration from Tanner's work including Romare Bearden and Kerry James Marshall. Of his influence, Marshall once stated, "black artists had to prove mastery of the tradition in order to own it, and only then could think about moving on," As art historian Richard J. Powell adds, "that an academician and art visionary like Tanner could have relevance in the twenty-first century was not only insinuated in Marshall's statement but corroborated in Marshall's multi-portrait wall installation First (2003)." The piece paid homage to numerous African-American "firsts," including artists, athletes, and thinkers being brought into the public eye for proper recognition of their contributions to the black historical experience.
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Cooper
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Cooper
First published on 28 Nov 2021. Updated and modified regularly