Black Artist of the Week: Henry Ossawa Tanner

Amy Julian

Most often when discussing famous works of art, the conversation almost always contains mentions of great masterpieces like Monet’s “Water Lilies” and Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” All too often, however, it is the works of art by some of the less well-known artists that escape recognition. Among the forgotten Picassos and Dalis is one man who was the creative voice of an entire race and the first to receive great success in the African-American community. Henry Ossawa Tanner has been touted as the most distinguished African-American artist of the nineteenth century while overcoming many personal and social hurdles to receive such international acclaim.

The son of an African Methodist Episcopalian minister and a former slave, Tanner cultivated his love of art at the age of thirteen when he would walk through Fairmount Park in Philadelphia and see painters at work. He reveled in this fluid form of expression and quickly expressed his love of art to his family. His father, looking to discourage his interest in painting, found him a job in the milling business where Henry quickly fell ill due to the intense labor required of him. It was only then that his parents suggested that he focus on art during his recovery.

Tanner fell in love with art and quickly began experimenting with various media and techniques. At the age of 21, Tanner decided to continue his studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, one of the most elite and esteemed art institutes in the country. Upon graduating, Tanner moved to Atlanta where he took up an interest in photography in addition to his painting. Under the patronage and mentoring of Bishop and Mrs. Joseph Crane Hertzell, two wealthy white philanthropists, Tanner continued to create works of art while teaching art courses at Clark College in Atlanta.

Tanner’s real ambition through his life was to travel abroad to show and sell his work. Upon arriving in France, Tanner immediately became inspired and created some of his greatest works of art. In 1895, he created perhaps his most famous work “Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” for which he won silver medals at both the Universal Exposition in Paris (1900) and the Pan American exhibition in Buffalo (1901).

Tanner did try to revisit his Philadelphia roots but realized that the racial prejudice of the time was too great; he moved back to Paris where he met his wife, white opera singer Jessie Olssen. Tanner devoted the rest of his life to his family and his painting, relying on his young son and wife as subjects in his paintings. Tanner never seemed to be able to live among the racial prejudice in the U.S. but his work transcended him, and still lives on in the hearts of millions across the globe.

Tanner has become a “symbol of hope and inspiration” according to many in the African community. He taught artists like himself that it was okay to express yourself, and that the work of African-Americans served as a mouthpiece for the entire race. Tanner was the first of his kind, becoming the first African-American (but certainly not the last) to receive France’s highest honors from the Order of the Legion of Honor and the National Academy of Design. Henry Ossawa Tanner, while lesser-known than other famous painters, contributed to the Harlem Renaissance and served as inspiration for much of the art we see today. For his immense contributions to the artistic and creative communities, Henry Ossawa Tanner is this week’s Black Artist of the Week.