Philadelphia, PA – Paris, France
Even as a teenager, Henry Tanner would forgo typical recreation to develop his drawing and painting skills; this devotion paid off when the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts accepted him into their program. Henry Tanner stood out among his contemporaries, becoming the first African-American to achieve international fame.
Although he found his initial success in Philadelphia, the rampant poverty and racism forced him to settle in France, both to study other artists and embrace a more tolerant culture. His emotional realism and willingness to experiment earned the admiration of subsequent painters: Norman Rockwell and William Edouard Scott. In fact, Rockwell’s The Banjo Player is almost a direct copy of Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson.
Pinning down Henry Tanner’s style is difficult, and his artistic dynamism may be a reason for his lasting fame. At times Tanner displayed methodical care; other times his strokes were little better than slashes on canvas. Most dramatic of all was his shift in subject matter. In his early career, Tanner focused on genre painting, but as the 20th century dawned, his paintings focused on religious themes. This religious material contains a depth of emotion unseen since the end of the Baroque, and his selection of scenes (such as Daniel in the Lion’s Den and the Resurrection of Lazarus) excited the French and American art communities.
The Arch, oil on canvas, (The Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Arch_-_Henry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_overall.jpg
The Banjo Lesson, oil on canvas, 1893 (Hampton University, Hampton, VA). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Henry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_The_Banjo_Lesson.jpg
The Thankful Poor, oil on canvas, 1894 (Private collection). http://www2.palomar.edu/users/mhudelson/WorksofArt/23PostImp/3545.html
View of the Seine, Looking Toward Notre Dame, oil on canvas, 1896 (Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY). http://www.michaelrosenfeldart.com/artists/henry-ossawa-tanner-1859-1937
Hampson, Thomas. “Henry Ossawa Tanner.” 2014. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/ihas/icon/tanner.html
Archives of American Art. “Henry Ossawa Tanner Papers.” 2014. http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/henry-ossawa-tanner-papers-9229/more
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. “Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit.” 2012. http://www.pafa.org/museum/Exhibitions/Past-Exhibitions/Henry-Ossawa-Tanner-Modern-Spirit/879/