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Honors Art History, Spring 2018

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Henry Ossawa Tanner 

Eli Verdin

Honors Art History

Spring 2018

Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on June 21, 1859. He was the oldest of nine children. His father was an Episcopal minister and his mother was a schoolteacher.  His mother actually was a former slave who escaped via the Underground Railroad. Tanner became very ill as a boy, and as a result, he spent a lot of time drawing while at home.  He then decided to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts under Thomas Eakins, who had a big impact on Tanner and his work.

In 1891, Tanner visited Paris. He was particularly struck by how progressive race relations were in Europe and how those relations were so far ahead of the United States.  Tanner decided to remain in Paris and study at Académie Julian in Paris with Jean-Léon Gérôme.  It was during this time that he became the first African-American painter to gain notoriety. Although Tanner briefly visited the United States, he lived the rest of his life in Europe.  

The Thankful Poor
Oil on canvas 
Private collection

Although Tanner’s works are not limited to one style of painting, Tanner is generally considered to be a Realist. The Realism movement focused on portraying subject matter truthfully, without artificiality or artistic convention.  The Realism art movement in painting began in France in the 1850s. Tanner’s Realist style is especially evident in his paintings, The Banjo Lesson and The Thankful Poor.  Often, Tanner would paint or draw certain things in a work in detail, and others in the same work, with very little detail.

Tanner’s impact on the art world, and particularly African-American artists who followed him, cannot be understated.  He influenced artists such as Hale Woodruff, Horace Pippin, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, James Van Der Zee, Romare Bearden, and Elizabeth Catlett.  In fact, in 2006, an exhibition opened at the Baltimore Museum of Art to showcase works of artists who had been influenced by Henry Tanner.  

Hale Woodruff

Elizabeth Catlett

Portrait of the Artist's Wife

1897, oil on fiberboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Savior, 1900-1905, oil on canvas mounted to plywood, Smithsonian American Art Museum

He Healed the Sick, 1930, oil on wood, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Study for Christ and Nicodemus on a Rooftop, 1923, oil on wood panel, Smithsonian American Art Museum

I like this painting because of the colors that Tanner used and the way he highlights the woman in the archway.  The viewer's eye is drawn to her even though she is very small and not detailed at all.  I read that Tanner traveled from his studio in Paris to the western coast of North Africa, where he visited Tangier, Morocco. Although it is not known if he painted this while in Morocco or after he returned to Paris, he depicted the architecture and the colors of that part of the world.  

Gateway, Tangier, 1910, oil on plywood, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The Banjo Lesson is Tanner's most famous work.  He painted this while in Philadelphia on a short trip back to the United States. The painting shows a grandfather teaching his grandson to play the banjo. I like this painting because it shows a man doing something simple, but very kind, for his grandson. I also like the way he uses light and dark to frame the scene, a skill that he learned from his mentor Eakins.  Although Tanner details a few things in the painting, such as the hands of the man and boy, he mainly uses dark colors on a light backgroundto set the scene.  

The Banjo Lesson, 1893, Oil on canvas, Hampton University Museum, Hampton, VA