simplebooklet thumbnail

This booklet it about the life and art of Henry Ossawa Tanner.

of 0

Henry Ossawa Tanner's Life & Art

Anna-Grace Ivester

Art History Honors, Stahl

Henry Ossawa Tanner


"I decided on the spot that I


wanted to be an artist, and I


assure you, it was no ordinary


artist I had in mind."


I am writing this booklet about Henry Ossawa Tanner to show his journey as an African American artist through the late 19th century and early 20th century America.  His life and his artwork are truely awesome.  I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did researching about this faithful, skilled artist. :)

-Henry Ossawa Tanner


Early Life & Family


Henry Ossawa Tanner was born June 21st, 1859 in Pittsburgh, Pennyslvania. His parents are Sarah and Benjamin Tucker Tanner. His father was a Methodist Minister and Abolitionist.  His Mother was born into slavery, a grandaughter of a caucasion plantation owner in Virginia. She used the underground railroad as a young woman to escape slavery and flee north to Pennslyvannia. Benjamin, his father, gave Henry his middle name after Osawatomie, Kansas, where abolitionist John Brown's brutal conflict with pro-slavery partisons on Augest 30th 1856.  Henry was raised in Philidelphia, Pennyslvania, along with his six siblings, where his father was assigned a church.  When he was Twelve he decided he wanted to be a painter when he saw a painter painting in Fairmount Park, Philidelphia.  He would paint during all of his free time inbetween school hours. He started out painting Marine life and Boats. He also enjoyed painting animals.  He studied art at the Pennyslvania Acadamy of Fine Arts, where he met Thomas Eakins.  After finishing school, Tanner tried to sell his paintings and photos to raise money for a trip to Europe.  He even opened a photography studio expecting that his African American peers in the community would encourage him.  Shorty, he shut down the shop and became a teacher. A few years later, he finally went to Europe and attended the Academie Julian in Paris.  This gave him a unique style with influences of American Realism and French Academic Painting.   



Style and Influences


Henry Ossawa Tanner was apart of the realism movement. Realism- treatment of forms, colors, space, etc., in such a manner as to emphasize their correspondence to actuality or to ordinary visual experience.  He had influences of American Realism and French Academic Painting which made his style very unique.  During his time at the Academy of Fine Arts, he was mentored by Thomas Eakins.  Eakins advanced in his art with scientific precision.  He was a realistic painter.  He showed Tanner that African Americans could be represented as real people and with dignity in art.  He even painted a portrait of Tanner in 1902.  Thomas Hovenden also had influences of Henry's art.  His peices like "The last moments of John Brown" is probably the types of paintings that influenced him. Hovenden also was apart of the abolitionist movement and often held meetings in his home. Henry's art can be divided into two seperate genres, His African American genre period (from the begining of his art until 1895) and his Biblical Themes period (from 1896 until death).  

Thomas Eakins portrait of Henry Ossawa Tanner


oil on canvas

Hyde Collection art Museum


"The Banjo Lesson"




 Oil on Canvas


Hampton University Museum



"The Thankful Poor"


 Oil on Canvas

Private Collection


"The Disciples at the Tomb"




Oil Paint


Art Institute of Chicago Building


"The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah"


Tempera and Varnish on Cardboard

High Museum of Art


"Nicodemus and Jesus on a rooftop"


Oil on Canvas

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts


"Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds"


Oil on Canvas

Smithsonian American Art Museum

"Angels Appearing before the Shepherds" is one of my favorite  paintings by Henry Ossawa Tanner. I love how it has a mysterious, magical feeling. The dark cool hues show a calm, almost chilling scene of the Angels approaching the shepards, most likley telling them of Christ's birth. Henry protrayed this infamous bible scene with a calm, peaceful tone with cool, mysterious hues.   


"Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds"


Oil on Canvas

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Another one of my favorite paintings by Henry is "The Ressurection of Lazurus" I love this painting because of all the range of emotions you see. Henry sets the tone with dark outer edges, and the main light souurce is in the middle of the painting where jesus is standing over Lazurus.  The looks on the peoples faces ranges from surprised, to scared, and some judgement, as if saying "there is no way'.  Henry protrayed this biblical scene as one full of emotion, and warmth.  

"The ressurection of Lazurus"


Oil on Canvas

"The ressurection of Lazurus"


Oil on Canvas


Style Changes

As you can see from the slide of photos, Tanner's style varied on each painting.  When WWI started, it depressed Henry and he created very few paintings during this time. He served with the American Red Cross in France when the U.S joined the war in 1917 to 1919.  He created a therapy program where revoring patients grew gardens on empty land beside hospitals.  When the war ended, he had approval to paint and sketch of the controlled war zones.  When Henry"s wife died in 1925, his paintings became mystical and mysterious, almost even whimsical. His style throughout his life changed from realism, to almost impressionism. It is amazing how one artist can produce so many paintings, each with their own unique style.

Example of Realism

"The three Wisemen"


oil on canvas

Example of more of an Impressionism style