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Painter of Pastoral and Spiritual Scenes

By Maggie Iba

Inspiring countless other artists who came after him, Henry Ossawa Tanner was a man of conviction and expressive spiritual awareness. He used his art not only to refine and ennoble the image of African Americans in art but also to express a deep sense of devotion to, and passion for, the Christian faith.

Table of Contents


Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in Pittsburg Pennsylvania, on June 21, 1859. He was the first of nine born into the home of an affluent African American family. His father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, was a Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Pittsburg. Henry’s mother, Sarah Miller Tanner, was a former slave who was liberated through the Underground Railroad and later worked as a teacher. When Tanner was thirteen the family moved to Philadelphia, and it was there that his love of art began to grow. At the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, Tanner was exposed to the art and cultural influence of nearly 37 different countries; because of this, Tanner became even more intent upon his artistic pursuit.

His father hoped that Henry would some day become a minister and follow in his footsteps. However, art was certainly not Benjamin Tanner’s idea of a viable discipline. In hopes of distracting Henry from art and teaching him the value of “real work,” his father got him a job at the local flourmill. However, because of the physically demanding work, the job proved to be detrimental to Henrys’ health. His health, which caused him trouble throughout his life, forced him to pursue less strenuous activities, and much to Henry’s delight, art was a perfect enterprise.

Vested with the somewhat reluctant support of his father, Henry enrolled in the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in 1880. There, he studied under Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) who had an enormous amount of influence on Henry, not only in the development of his style but also in his pursuit of art itself. He became an illustrator for the Harper Brothers publishing company. It was one of the few businesses willing to utilize the talents of African American artists and writers. Despite the small success he had at Harper Brothers as an African American at the turn of the century, it was difficult for him to receive much encouragement to pursue a career as an artist. Aside from this disheartening fact, Henry’s good friend Eakins always championed for minorities, and even women, to boldly strive towards art making.

Even with his passion and talent, Henry left PAFA before graduating. Perhaps out of frustration with the struggle to develop a patronage in Philadelphia, he moved to Atlanta, Georgia in 1888. His plan was to synthesize art and business through the development of a small photography gallery. He also explored photography, which was a key element in the development of his artistic sense of composition. He even taught drawing classes at Clark College, a new university for African Americans. All his endeavors not withstanding, Henry was barely able to make enough income to support himself. Nevertheless, he did become acquainted with Bishop and Mrs. Joseph Crane Hartzel who were great admirers of his work and became some of his most supportive patrons.

He was able to sell his small floundering gallery and in the summer of 1888 he moved to Highlands, North Carolina. He found the landscape of Highlands to be a perfect inspiration for his photography, and the air of the mountains provided a needed support for his health. Both the terrain and the African Americans of the area became the subjects of his art, and later fed ideas for some of his more developed works. Henry’s good friend Joseph Hartzel helped arrange a small exhibition in Cincinnati in 1890. Hartzel ended up purchasing the entire collection from Henry giving him the means to go abroad, a dream he had held from some time.

Absorbing the artistic richness of many different European countries, Henry eventually landed in Paris. He was so taken by the inspirational spirit of the city, and its tolerance and cosmopolitan flavor, that he eventually made it his home. It was here that he began to study under Benjamin Constant (1845-1902) and Jean-Paul Laurens, who were respected academic painters. He spent a good deal of time with traditional figure studies and classical techniques; however, Henry was also encouraged to experiment with his paint and to discover his own style. Constant, who had a very painterly and robust style, greatly influenced Henry and his technique.

As Henry continued to develop his style and technique, he also became increasingly concerned with the position of African Americans and the way in which they were depicted. In 1893, he completed The Banjo Lesson, which caught the attention of quite a few people because of its unusual use of color and the noble depiction of the African American. Also in that same year, he delivered a paper on black artists at the Columbian Exposition. Henry painted a handful of paintings with this same edge of social commentary on the beastly depiction of African Americans in art and in the media. Henry sought to show his people as noble, honest humans, working and living noble and honest lives.

Despite the positive response he received from working with African American subjects, Henry began to paint more religiously themed art. His religious themes and beautiful style and technique drew the attention of Rodman Wanamaker, a “second Benjamin Franklin” and an avid supporter of the arts, who helped Henry travel to the Holy land to gather inspiration and images for more work.

In 1898, Henry married Jessie Macauley Olssen, a white singer from California whom he met while living in Paris. They had a son, Jesse Ossawa, and after a few trips to New York and Philadelphia they made Paris their home. However happy Henry was domestically, the tension and eventual outbreak of the First World War weighed heavily upon his soul. He joined the American Red Cross and served in France to support the efforts for healing in the midst of such destruction. Partly because of his work for the war and partly because of his international fame as an artist who had “arrived,” Henry was awarded the prestigious position of Chevalier of the Legion of Honour by the French government. Later in 1927, he was inducted in to the National Academy of Design, and was in fact the first African American to enjoy a full membership.

In the later part of Henry’s career, he was able to paint less and less, but despite the meager quantity of work, the quality seemed to only improve. His health began to slip and he was able to travel less and less. He died in his beloved home in Paris on May 25, 1937. Even after his death he continued to be an inspiration and encouragement to African American artists everywhere. Later in 1969, the Smithsonian exhibited many of his works and Henry Ossawa Tanner became the first artist of African American descent to have a major solo exhibition in the United States. In 1996, his work Sand Dunes at Sunset was bought by the White House and was the first piece by an African American artist to join the collection.


“My effort has been to not only put the Biblical incident in the original setting ... but at the same time give the human touch "which makes the whole world kin" and which ever remains the same.”- Henry Ossawa Tanner

Considered the most talented and esteemed African American painter of the 19th Century, Henry Ossawa Tanner earned every fleck of his title. His interest lay in the accurate depiction of the human form and natural surroundings. He devoted much of his time to studying the world around him and more importantly the actual people he came into contact with.

Most of the models Henry used in his paintings were friends, family or studies of the people living around him. While his technique and execution of the human form, atmospheric perspective, and geography are brilliant, his style and the freedom of his brush stroke is what ultimately breaths life into his work.

In paintings like The Banjo Lesson, one can see the fluid use of paint, as if he effortlessly swept the pigment onto the canvas. The light and color of the piece echo the Impressionists in that it seems as if the subjects are caught at a fleeting moment as the sun starts to fade. While many of his works were influenced by Impressionism he never moved into the whole of that style, and because of this he was often criticized as being too “old fashion.” Yet, when looking at his use of color and the application of paint, there is such vitality and softness that it is hard to imagine calling it “old fashioned.”

Both in his genre scenes, African American paintings and his religious work, there is a type of compassion and gentleness between the subjects, which is rarely seen in art. In his painting The Annunciation (1898), the divine light of an angelic presence illuminates the entire room. The young Mary, frightened but full of gentleness looks questioningly towards the messenger whose warm light seems to embrace her.

His skills in photography lead to his beautifully arranged compositions. He seems able to achieve balance even in a very asymmetric composition. In his piece The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water (1907), he places the boat in the upper right of the composition with the sea stretching out to the bottom. This unique composition gives the viewer a sense of looking in on the scene as if one was floating above a glassy ocean. Night is bathed in an icy blue moonlight and the water, so perfectly rendered, looks like a mosaic of mirrors.

Henry’s range of subject matter and his ever-evolving palette set him apart from many of his contemporaries. However, it was the warmth and humanity with which he approached each of his pieces that ultimately set him apart. His hope of lending his talents to help mend a broken world inspired many young people to not only pursue their artistic desires but to also expand their vision and to grow in compassion and kindness to those around them.


  • 1859 Born on June 21 in Pittsburg, PA
  • 1876 Attends the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition
  • 1879-1885 Studies under Thomas Eakins
  • 1886-1887 Illustrates for Harper Brothers Publishing in Philadelphia
  • 1888 Moved to Atlanta Georgia
  • 1888 summer Moved to Highlands, North Carolina
  • 1888 fall Moves back to Atlanta, Georgia
  • 1890 First exhibit in Cincinnati, Ohio
  • 1891 Lands in Rome
  • 1892 Lands in Paris
  • 1893 Delivered paper at Columbian Exhibition
  • 1892-1893 Moved between Paris and rural Brittany
  • 1895 Won honorable mention at the salon in Paris for the painting Daniel in the Lions Den
  • 1899 Marries Jessie Macauley Olssen
  • 1900 Won the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts' Lippincott Prize
  • 1903 Son, Jesse Ossawa is born
  • 1923 Was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honour
  • 1927 Joined the National Academy of Design

  • Atlanta High Museum of Art Collection
  • Carnegie Collection
  • Chicago Art Institute Collection
  • Daniel J Terra Collection
  • Evans-Tibbs Collections
  • Hampton University Museum Collection
  • Houston Museum of Fine Art Collection
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection, CA
  • Museum d’Orsay Collection
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection
  • National Academy of Design Collection, NY
  • National Museum of African Art Collection, DC
  • National Gallery of Art Collection, DC
  • Newark Museum Collection
  • Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts Collection
  • Philadelphia Museum of Art Collection
  • Rhode Island School of Design Collection
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum Collection, DC
  • Terra Foundation for American Art Collection, IL
  • White House Collection, D.C.

  • American Art Galleries, New York
  • American Artists Professional League
  • Art Institute of Chicago-Exhibited
  • Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburg Pennsylvania
  • Century of Progress Chicago
  • Corcoran Gallery Biennial
  • Exhibition of Society of American Artists
  • Grand Central Art Galleries
  • Howard University, Washington, D,C.
  • Knoedler Gallery, New York
  • Morgan State College, Baltimore, Maryland
  • National Artists Club Galleries, New York
  • National Academy of Design
  • Panama Pacific Exhibition
  • Paris Salon
  • Pennsylvania Academy-Exhibited
  • Philadelphia Art Club, Philadelphia Pennsylvania
  • Philadelphia Centennial Exposition
  • Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia Pennsylvania
  • Salon des Artistes Francais, Paris, France
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • Spleman College Museum of Fine Art, Atlanta Georgia
  • St. Louis Exposition-World's Fair
  • University of California, Los Angeles, California
  • University Expositions, Paris, France
  • University of Texas Art Museum, Texas
  • Vose Galleries-Boston
  • Whitney Museum of American Art
  • Xavier University Art Gallery, New Orleans, Louisiana

  • Academician Nation Academy of Design, Member
  • Clark Prize, Grand Central Galleries-1930
  • Fellowship Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Member
  • Gold Medal, San Francisco-1915
  • Harris Prize, Art Institute of Chicago- 1906
  • Lippincott Prize- 1900
  • Paris Society of American Painters, Member
  • Silver Medal, Paris Exposition- 1900
  • Silver Medal, St. Louis Exposition- 1904
  • Second Class Medal, Paris Salon- 1906
  • Societe International de Peinture et Sculpture, Member
  • Third class Medal, Paris Salon- 1897
  • Third Class Medal, Pan-American Exposition- 1901
  • VIII. Bibliography

    1. 1.Amaki, Amalia K. A Century of African American Art. London: Rutgers University Press, 2004.
    2. 2. Boime, Albert. "Henry Owassa Tanner's Subversion of Genre." The Art Bulletin 75, no. 3 (1993): 415-42.
    3. 3. Burke, Daniel. "Henry Owassa Tanner's ‘La Sainte-Marie’." Smithsonian Studies in Art 2, no. 2 (1988): 64-73.
    4. 4. Cachin, Francoise. Paintings in the Musee D'Orsay. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang Inc, 1989.
    5. 5. Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors and Engravers, edited by Glenn B. Ortiz. New York, N.Y.: Apollo, 1995.
    6. 6. Falk, Peter H. Who Was Who in American Art, 1564-1975: 400 Years of Artists in America. Vol. 3., Conn.: Sound Press, 1999.
    7. 7. Grund. Dictionary of Artists. Vol. 13. Paris: Editions Grund, 2006.
    8. 8. Matthews, Marcia M. Henry Owassa Tanner: An American Artist. London: University of Chicago, 1969.
    9. 9. Patton, Sharon F. African American Art. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998.
    10. 10. Pinder, Kymberly N. " ‘Our Father, God; our Brother, Christ; or are We Bastard Kin’?: Images of Christ in African American Painting." African American Review, 31, no. 2 (1997): 223-33.
    11. Updated 6/14/07.

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