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18th/19th Century Artist Booklet

Art History Honors

Henry Ossawa Tanner

By: Rebecca Dooley

This booklet will give readers a glimpse into Henry Ossawa Tanner's life, style, artwork, and passions. I hope that after you read this you not only feel connected to the artist himself, but you really seek to find the meaning behind his paintings as well. I learned so much after studying this specific painter and his story of African American heritage and I hope the same for you.

Henry Ossawa Tanner was the first African American painter who gained popularity in the world of art beginning in the 1890’s. He was born on June 21, 1859, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to his father who was a minister and school teacher and his mother who was a former slave. He was also the oldest of five children in his family. During his early childhood his family relocated often whenever the father found new work, however, in 1864 the family settled in Philadelphia where a Tanner would later decide he wanted to become an artist.

The Tanner Family

 Henry O. Tanner knew he wanted to be an artist at the age of thirteen when he stumbled upon a painter at work in a local park (Fairmount Park) by his home. From then on he began painting in his spare time, visiting art galleries, and studying under local artists. Later, he studied at The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and The Académie Julian which exposed him to both styles of American Realism and French academic painting. This education and training made Tanner stand out especially in an age where African Americans were underprivileged in education. 

Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, PA

Although he lived most of his life in France, Tanner also traveled to the United States, where some of his art would be inspired by the poverty he found among African Americans. In addition to humanity, Tanner’s pieces also focused on many religious aspects specifically derived from the bible.

"The Savior"

-Henry Ossawa Tanner

"The Banjo Lesson"

-Henry Ossawa Tanner

Tanner’s style can be strongly associated with the Impressionism movement which developed in the 19th century and lead artists to capture specific moments, which resulted in less detail within paintings and more of an immediate feeling. This can especially be seen through his portrayal of bible stories. Henry Ossawa Tanner can be compared to Claude Monet, who was likewise an Impressionist, lived in France, and also focused on the world around him. Tanner’s style was influenced by both American Realism and French Academic painting based upon his education and training in Paris and The States.

Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son (1875)

-Claude Monet

Claude Monet

In order to better understand the artist, let's look at some of his most famous work.

One of his earliest pieces made in 1893, titled “The Banjo Lesson”, later became his most famous work. “The Banjo Lesson” features an elderly man teaching a young boy to play the banjo. There is also a short story named “Uncle Tim’s Compromise On Christmas” that accompanies this painting, which explains that a grandfather gave his very special banjo to his grandson on Christmas morning. This painting now resides in The Hampton University Museum in Hampton, VA.

"The Banjo Lesson"

"The Thankful Poor"

“The Thankful Poor” is another one of Tanner’s pieces that was inspired by his African American heritage and was made in 1984, shortly after “The Banjo Lesson”. This picture depicts a grandfather and grandson taking a moment to pray before they share a meal together. The copious light allowed into the painting resembles a more spiritual presence and is also the beginning of Tanner’s more religious collection. This painting is now apart of William and Camille Cosby’s collection.

Another painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner is a portrait of Jesus Christ titled "The Savior" made sometime between 1900-1905. This painting depicts Jesus meditating just before he would receive his crown of thorns and purple robe before he was crucified. Tanner made Jesus' sorrowful and conflicted state apparent on his face, which reflects the artists sympathy for the savior. This painting is now on display at The Smithsonian American Art Museum.

 "He Healed the Sick"

In 1930 Tanner made "He Healed the Sick" which was another depiction of Jesus Christ, yet before he was sentenced to death. Although there is no specific story from the bible related to this scene, many times throughout history Jesus is recorded performing miracles and healing the deaf, blind, cripple, and more. This painting is now stored at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

"The Savior"

The "Portrait of the Artist's Wife" (Jessie Macauley Olssen) was believed to be made in 1897. She was a white opera singer from San Francisco who happened to be in France and met Tanner during her stay. The two married in 1899 and had only one child together. This painting of her is very relaxed and informal, revealing her natural beauty. This piece is also displayed at The Smithsonian American Art Museum.

"Study for the Young Sabot Maker"

While Henry Ossawa Tanner was spending time in France in 1895 he painted "Study for the Young Sabot Maker". Sabots were wooden shoes that were popular in France during the time. This painting shows a boy studying under his master, learning how to make the shoes himself. This boy also happens to be African American which relates to Tanner's heritage and his artistic theme of students learning from their teachers. This painting is now on display at The Smithsonian American Art Museum.

"Portrait of the Artist's Wife"

My two favorite pieces from Henry Ossawa Tanner's collection are "Portrait of Artist's Wife" and "The Thankful Poor".

I think "The Thankful Poor" is a powerful piece because it holds significant meaning to the time period in which Tanner painted it. African Americans have experienced oppression for a great portion of history and it sends a strong message that the people depicted in the painting are praying to and thanking God despite their circumstances. Also, I think that it reflects heritage, or how you are brought up, because the grandfather most likely taught his grandson to "say grace" before a meal as tradition. 


I admire the "Portrait of Artist's Wife" because it is visible that this piece meant something to Henry Ossawa Tanner because of his strong emotional attachment to his wife. I think that there is symbolism within his technique of really defining the face and letting her clothing flow more freely in that her beauty was more than external, it was less about the clothes she wore and more about her soul. I think this is also why he painted her more informally, to emphasize that message.