Henry Ossawa Tanner (June 21, 1859 – May 25, 1937) was an African-American artist. He was the first African-American painter to gain international acclaim.
Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, PA. His father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner was a minister, editor, and political activist. His mother Sarah Tanner had escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad. The family moved to Philadelphia when Tanner was young; his father becoming a friend, sometime supporter, sometime critic of Frederick Douglass.
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’s 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 would keep in contact throughout the rest of his life, most notable of these being 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 an ability to transfer his understanding of the weight and structure of the human figure to the canvas.
Issues of racism
Tanner’s non-confrontational personality and preference for subtle expression in his work seem to belie his difficulties, but his life was not without struggle. Although he gained confidence as an artist and began to sell his work, racism was a major condition in Philadelphia, as massive numbers of African Americans left the rural South and settled in Northern urban centers. Although painting became a therapeutic source of release for him, lack of acceptance 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 an unsuccessful attempt at opening a photography studio in Atlanta and teaching drawing at Clark Atlanta University Tanner traveled to France in 1891, to the Académie Julian, and 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 artworks that 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. One example is the striking similarity between Tanner’s “The Young Sabot Maker” (1895) and Courbet’s “The Stonebreakers” (1850). Both paintings explore the theme of apprenticeship and menial labor.
He studied under renowned artists such as Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens.