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Henry Ossawa Tanner

For today’s Art Wednesday, let’s look at some works from Henry Ossawa Tanner (June 21, 1859 – May 25, 1937), the first African-American painter to receive international acclaim.


Henry Ossawa Tanner Portrait, 1906


Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in 1859 in Pittsburgh, the first of seven kids. His father was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination in the US.

Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893


Tanner’s mother Sarah was a former slave from Virginia who escaped north with the help of the underground railroad.

Tanner, The Good Shepherd, 1903


In 1879, Tanner enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He was the first and only African American in the academy.

Tanner, Jesus and Nicodemus, 1899


In America, Tanner had to navigate pervasive racism. His middle name, Ossawa, referred to Osawatomie, Kansas—the site of abolitionist John Brown’s confrontation with pro-slavery partisans in 1856.

Tanner, The Annunciation, 1898


Tanner moved to Paris, France, in 1891 to study art, and continued to live there after being accepted in French artistic circles.

Tanner, The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water, c. 1907


Though race played an important role in Tanner’s art, he didn’t want to be a niche artist focused only on race. He wanted to develop his skills in the tradition of the European masters.

Tanner, The Seine, 1902


In Paris, Tanner did not face the racism he knew in the US, so he lived there until his death in 1937. In 1923, Tanner received France’s most distinguished art award, the Order of the Legion Honor.

Tanner, Spinning By Firelight, 1894


That’s it for today’s Art Wednesday. I love Henry Tanner’s work. I first began to learn about him in the course of pulling together other Art Wednesday content. I love it when artists introduce you to their friends.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Thankful Poor, 1894



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