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Henry Ossawa Tanner: An American in Paris

American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner is considered the most distinguished African-American artist of the nineteenth century and the first artist of his race to achieve international acclaim. Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, PA where his mother, a former slave, was sent to settle from the south through the Underground Railroad. Sarah Miller married Benjamin Tucker Tanner, a college-educated teacher and minister who later became a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopalian Church. In 1864, the Tanner family settled in Philadelphia where Henry’s early artistic talents were recognized and developed. Bishop Tanner discouraged his son’s interest in art, apprenticing him to a miller in an effort to learn a viable trade. Henry was a frail child with fragile health and work in the flour mill was too difficult for him causing him to fall into a period of serious illness. In a change of heart, his parents encouraged his painting during his recuperation and, in 1880, Tanner enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at age twenty-one. He was the only African American in a student body of two hundred. There he was greatly influenced by Thomas Eakins who was his teacher and mentor. Tanner tried his hand at several business ventures in the arts but when none were successful he set sail for Europe in 1891. Intending to settle in Rome, Tanner fell in love with Paris and remained there to study at the Academie Julien, soon painting two of his most important works depicting Africa-American subjects, The Banjo Lesson, from 1893 and The Thankful Poor in 1894. In 1895, Tanner focused his attention on religious subjects and the spirituality of his upbringing. It is with those paintings that he made his reputation and gained international acclaim. Daniel in the Lion’s Den, which won an honorable mention at the Paris Salon that year was followed by Resurrection of Lazarus in 1897 which was purchased by the French government for the collection of the Louvre. Sales of his paintings of Biblical subjects financed trips to Palestine, Egypt and Morocco where he continued to explore religious and spiritual subjects such as the concept of salvation and the idea of Christ as a humble figure.

Tanner painted actively until 1936, surrounded by the avant-garde developments in art in Paris but choosing to avoid their influence. He remained separate from other African-American artists working as part of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. This rich interdisciplinary movement asserted black pride and helped to raise the consciousness about inequality and discrimination through the arts for the first time. Tanner returned briefly to the states in 1893 but fled quickly back to Paris, convinced that he could not fight racial prejudice in this country and pursue his art at the same time. He kept close ties with his family but chose to live permanently in France with is wife, whom he married in 1899, and their son. Tanner felt that in France his race was less of an issue to fellow artists, critics and patrons, allowing him the freedom to pursue painting unencumbered by the social and moral dilemma of prejudice.

In our October 26-27 Fine Sale, we are pleased to offer a fine example of Tanner’s work from 1897. The subject here is Cairo, painted during a trip to Egypt. Though not biblical in subject, the painting conveys Tanner’s expressive style of Realism, the influence of Impressionism and his training in the French Academic tradition.

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