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Henry Ossawa Tanner (June 21, 1859 – May 25, 1937) was an American artist and the first African-American painter to gain international acclaim. Tanner moved to Paris in 1891 to study, where he continued to live after being accepted in French artistic circles. His painting entitled Daniel in the Lions' Den was accepted into the 1896 Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
After his own self-study in art as a young man, Tanner enrolled in 1879 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. As the only black student, he became a favorite of the painter Thomas Eakins, who had recently begun teaching there. Tanner made other connections among artists, including Robert Henri. In the late 1890s he was sponsored for a trip to Palestine by Rodman Wanamaker, who was impressed by his paintings of biblical themes.
Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the first of seven children. His middle name commemorated the struggle at Osawatomie between pro- and anti-slavery partisans. His father Benjamin Tucker Tanner (1835-1923) was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination in the United States. Being educated at Avery College and Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, he developed a literary career. In addition, he was a political activist. His mother Sarah Tanner was born into slavery in Virginia but had escaped to the North via the Underground Railroad. She was mixed race, and Tanner himself was either a quadroon or an octoroon.
The family moved to Philadelphia when Tanner was young. There his father became a friend of Frederick Douglass, sometimes supporting him, sometimes criticising.
Although many artists refused to accept an African-American apprentice, in 1879 Tanner enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, becoming the only black student. His decision to attend the school came at an exciting time in the history of artistic institutional training. Art academies had long relied on tired notions of study devoted almost entirely to plaster cast studies and anatomy lectures. This changed drastically with the addition of Thomas Eakins as “Professor of Drawing and Painting” to the Pennsylvania Academy. Eakins encouraged new methods such as study from live models, direct discussion of anatomy in male and female classes, and dissections of cadavers to further familiarity and understanding of the human body. Eakins’s progressive views and ability to excite and inspire his students would have a profound effect on Tanner. The young artist proved to be one of Eakins’ favorite students; two decades after Tanner left the Academy, Eakins painted his portrait, making him one of a handful of students to be so honored.
At the Academy Tanner befriended artists with whom he kept in contact throughout the rest of his life, most notably Robert Henri, one of the founders of the Ashcan School. During a relatively short time at the Academy, Tanner developed a thorough knowledge of anatomy and the skill to express his understanding of the weight and structure of the human figure on the canvas.
Although he gained confidence as an artist and began to sell his work, he had to deal with racism in Philadelphia. It had traditionally had strong ties to the South through numerous planter families and commercial ties; in addition, planters had sent their daughters to Philadelphia academies. After the Civil War, many African Americans left the rural South and settled in Northern urban centers, at times coming into conflict with the increasing population of immigrants from Ireland, southern and eastern Europe. Although painting became a therapeutic source of release for Tanner, the lack of acceptance in society was painful. In his autobiography The Story of an Artist’s Life, Tanner describes the burden of racism:
I was extremely timid and to be made to feel that I was not wanted, although in a place where I had every right to be, even months afterwards caused me sometimes weeks of pain. Every time any one of these disagreeable incidents came into my mind, my heart sank, and I was anew tortured by the thought of what I had endured, almost as much as the incident itself.
In an attempt to gain artistic acceptance, Tanner left America for France in late 1891. Except for occasional brief returns home, he spent the rest of his life there.
After a photography studio in Atlanta had been unsuccessful, Tanner taught drawing at Clark College which is now called Clark Atlanta University for a short period. In 1891 he traveled to Paris, France to study at the Académie Julian. He also joined the American Art Students Club of Paris. Paris was a welcome escape for Tanner; within French art circles the issue of race mattered little. Tanner acclimated quickly to Parisian life.
In Paris, Tanner was introduced to many new artists whose works would affect the way in which he painted. At the Louvre, Tanner encountered and studied the works of Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste Chardin and Louis Le Nain. These artists had painted scenes of ordinary people in their environment and the effect in Tanner’s work is noticeable. The influence of Courbet’s The Stonebreakers (1850; Destroyed) can be seen in the similarities painted by Tanner in his The Young Sabot Maker (1895). Both paintings explore the theme of apprenticeship and hand labor.
He studied under renowned artists such as Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens. With their guidance, Tanner began to establish a reputation. He settled at the Étaples art colony in Normandy. Earlier Tanner painted marine scenes that showed man’s struggle with the sea, but by 1895 he was creating mostly religious works. A transitional work from this period is the recently rediscovered painting of a fishing boat tossed on the waves, which is held by the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
This is based on the description of a miracle in the Gospel of Matthew in which 'the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary' (14:24). The simple resources at Étaples were well adapted to his subject matter, which in several cases featured Biblical figures in dark interiors.
His painting entitled Daniel in the Lions' Den was accepted into the 1896 Salon. Later that year he painted The Resurrection of Lazarus. The critical praise for this piece solidified Tanner’s position in the artistic elite and heralded the future direction of his paintings, which treated mostly biblical themes. Upon seeing The Resurrection of Lazarus, art critic Rodman Wanamaker offered to cover an all expenses-paid trip for Tanner to the Middle East. Wanamaker felt that any serious painter of biblical scenes needed to see the environment firsthand and that a painter of Tanner's caliber was well worth the investment.
Tanner quickly accepted the offer. Before the next Salon opened, Tanner set forth for Palestine. Explorations of various mosques and biblical sites as well as character studies of the local population allowed Tanner to further his artistic training. His paintings developed a powerful air of mystery and spirituality. Tanner was not the first artist to study the Middle East in person. Since the 1830s, interest in Orientalism had been growing in Europe. Artists such as Eugène Delacroix, David Roberts, and later Henri Matisse made such tours to capitalize on this curiosity.
In his adopted home of France, he was given one of their highest honors in 1923, when he was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honor and considered this "citation by the French government to be the greatest honor of his illustrious career."