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The Life of ….
Henry Ossawa Tanner
Century Realism Artist
Bryant Dover
Art History Honors Spring 2018
This booklet was completed to honor the life of Henry Ossawa
Tanner. He was the first African American to receive international
recognition for his paintings. He was painter that was part of the realism
movement. His paintings depicted received recognition because of his
use of real life scenes of African Americans as well as biblical scenes.
Henry Ossawa Tanner
Henry Ossawa Tanner was the first African American painter to
gain international recognition. He was born on June 21, 1859 in
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and was the oldest of nine children. His father
was an educated Episcopal minister and his mother a former slave was a
school teacher. Most of Tanner’s childhood was spent in Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania where his family moved when he was just a few years old.
He attended Robert Vaux School. This was one of the few all African
American institutions that offered a liberal arts curriculum. Much to the
dismay of his educated minded parents Tanner decided at the age of 13
to become a painter. Due to his poor health he spent most of his teens at
home painting and drawing. In 1880 Tanner was well enough to attend
The Pennsylvania School of Fine Arts. He studied under Thomas
Eakins who made an impact on Tanners painting. He encouraged
Tanner to try photography but Tanner later decided that painting was his
passion. Before finishing school Tanner went to Atlanta Georgia where
he taught and ran his own art gallery. In 1891 Tanner moved to Paris
France after a visit to Europe. It was here that he found freedom form
the racial restraints that he had encountered most of his life. Tanner’s
paintings were influenced by his African American roots and his
religious upbringing. His most famous works depict both of these
themes. Tanner died at his home in Paris on May 25, 1937. His fame in
the art world dimmed for a time but has been rekindled over the past
Tanner’s work was considered to be a part of the realism
movement. Realism was characterized by everyday scenes and the
subjects of the paintings being shown as they were observed. His work
often depicted the everyday life of African Americans and how he
observed them. His most famous biblical scenes based the human
subjects of his paintings on non-white Middle Eastern models. He was
the first to do this and it showed his commitment to realism and
“preaching” the real gospel. Tanner was influenced by many artist the
most influential in his realism commitment was Thomas Eakins whose
paintings were almost considered too real at times.
Most Important Paintings
“The Banjo Lesson” (1893)
The Banjo Lesson was an oil on canvas that was painted in 1893. Today it can be
seen at the Hampton University Museum, Hampton, VA. Tanner completed this painting after a
visit to the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. The painting features an older gentleman
or grandpa figure teaching a young boy to play the banjo in a real setting.
“The Thankful Poor” (1894)
This painting was completed in 1894 and was sold by action in 1981
after spending 75 years in a closet. The painting shows an African older gentleman and a young
boy giving thanks for the little that they have. This was a real representation of African
American life at this time.
“The Young Sabot Maker” (1895)
This painting depicts a young boy making a wooden shoe by pushing with all his
weight against the crossbar handle of a sawhorse. This painting was created after Tanner visited
a rural French village in France. Today the painting can be seen at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of
Art in Kansas City, Missouri.
“Nicodemus Visiting Jesus” (1899)
This painting illustrates the biblical account of Nicodemus visiting Jesus on
the evening before Jesus’ baptism. It is at this visit that Jesus explains the meaning of eternal life
through John 3:16. It is housed at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia,
“The Two Disciples at the Tomb” (1906)
The Two Disciples at the Tomb depicts the discovery of Christ's empty
tomb on Easter Sunday. This painting is housed at The Art Institute of Chicago.
Etaples Fisher Folk” (1923)
This painting is now at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. The
lighting in this painting sets a religious tone of two peasants preparing a meal. Tanner used a
combination of tempera and oil on canvas to achieve this effect.
Favorite Paintings:
“The Banjo Lesson” is one of my favorite paintings by Tanner. This painting speaks
to me because of the real setting used to show the relationship between the grandfather and his
grandson. The use of loose brush strokes and the lighter colors in the background make the
subjects standout. I can relate to this painting because of the close relationship I have with my
“Nicodemus Visiting Jesus” is another one of my favorite works of Tanner.
This is an example fo realism because of the subjects being middle eastern subjects and the
humble setting used. The colors again are used to project light on the subjects especially Jesus.
The story behind the painting is also something that I can relate to. Jesus is telling Nicodemus
about eternal life only coming through Him and bringing to life John 3:16.
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