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A booklet on Henry Tanner for Mrs. Stahl's Art History Honors class

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Roderick Bishop

Mrs. Stahl's Art History Honors Class


Henry Ossawa Tanner




Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, PA in 1859. He was the oldest of 7 children. He was a preacher's kid, his father was a Bishop.  

He went to Pennsylvania Academy of The Fine Arts, attending as the only African- American student at the time. While there, Thomas Eakins was his teacher and greatly influenced his work. 

In 1891, he moved to Paris, France. While in Paris, he studied under Jean-Paul Laurens and settled into life in France.  

During his time in France, Tanner began painting scenes that were greatly influenced by the bible. In 1896, he was able to tour the middle- east to see the biblical scenes that he painted. 

In 1899 he married Jessie Olsson. They had one child in 1903, Jesse Tanner. 

During WW1, Tanner worked for the Red Cross and painted war scenes during that time. In 1923, the French made him a Knight of the Legion of Honour, a very illustrious title.  

Sadly in 1925, his wife Jessie passed. He himself passed 12 years later and are buried next to each other about 10 miles outside of Paris. 

In the 1960's Henry Tanner's work began displaying at the Smithsonian Museum. He is noted as one of the greatest African-American artists of all-time. 

Who is Mr. Tanner?

Portrait of Tanner by Thomas Eakins

Impressionism is an art movement that began in France in the 19th century. Impressionist paintings usually consist of brush strokes that are light, and thin. 

Realism is a movement that also began in France in the 19th century. Realists painted scenes that depicted life in a raw and real light, hence the name.  

Tanner's style falls between characteristics of the realist and impressionist styles. The most famous scenes he painted were primarily real life scenes of African-American life or biblical stories.He also painted scenes of nature, usually using the impressionist style. The impressionist style of painting was generally used, with the scenes depicting life as real as possible. Considering that he lived in France around that time and studied under Laurens(a french painter who mainly painted academic art, but dabbled in impressionism) and Eakins(an American realist painter that he studied under before France), this is a very predictable outcome. 



Here are some of Tanner's most famous works and where you can find them. 

Tanner's Work


"The Banjo Lesson"


Hampton University Museum

The most famous of Tanner's realist paintings. Depicts a grandfather teaching his grandson to play the banjo. Tanner created a few paintings with these two subjects as part of a collection. 

"Abraham's Oak"


Smithsonian American Art Museum

One of Tanner's paintings with biblical influences, and one of the only to be displayed in the Smithsonian


"Coastal Landscape, France"


Micheal Rosenfield Gallery

The portrayal of the landscape near Tanner's home in Normandy. Part of a series of paintings that Tanner produced following his move to France. 


Tanner's Work (cont.)

"Two disciples at the Tomb"


Art Institute of Chicago


"Nicodemus and Jesus on a rooftop"


Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts

One of Tanner's most famous biblical paintings. 


"The Thankful Poor"


Not up for public display

The second painting to feature the grandfather and grandson. One of the realist paintings that received widespread notoriety


"Abraham's Oak" is my second favorite by Tanner. This painting is also oil on canvas and consists of cool colors. Tiny breast strokes do a great job of showing permeated light emitted from the single source and showing details in the tree. The subject of the painting is left of center, perfectly following rule of thirds. The biblical scenes of Tanner are some of his most interesting, because of his attempt to depict something that the world today has never seen. 

"The Banjo lesson" is by far my favorite of Tanner's. I actually have it in my room. Tha painting reminds me of the relationship that I had with my grandfather and all the things he taught me. 

The painting uses oil in canvas, and light, thin strokes. Cool colors are used throughout the painting, except a warm hue that permeates across the left side of the child's body. 

The painting blends realist and impressionist characteristics to make a beautiful work of art.  

My two favorite paintings