|Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893. Accepted in the Paris Salon of 1894|
|Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation, 1898, Philadelphia Museum of Art|
His mother, Sarah, had escaped the south via the underground railway and settled in Pittsburg where she eventually married Benjamin Tucker, Henry Ossawa Tucker's father. Although the family moved several times during Henry's childhood, in 1864 they settled in Philadelphia where Henry developed his interest in art. His parents were not happy about his desire to become a painter and tried to get him to work in a mill but Henry was too frail and became ill.
During his recuperation, Henry lived at home and at the age of 21, his parents allowed him to enroll in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. When he was a student there, he came to the attention of Thomas Eakins who encouraged his talent and was a great influence on his early style. Tanner moved to Atlanta in 1889 in an unsuccessful attempt to support himself as an artist and instructor among prosperous middle class African-Americans. Bishop and Mrs. Joseph C. Hartzell arranged for Tanner's first solo exhibition, the proceeds from which enabled the struggling artist to move to Paris in 1891. Illness brought him back to the United States in 1893, and it was at this point in his career that Tanner turned his attention to genre subjects of his own race. - From Rings: Five Passions in World Art, by J. Carter Brown
|Spinning By Firelight, 1894|
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."
Instead of the comic stereotypes of the African American, Tanner sought to imbue their lives of struggle with dignity and integrity: Henry Ossawa Tanner, who sought to represent black subjects with dignity, wrote: "Many of the artists who have represented Negro life have seen only the comic, the ludicrous side of it, and have lacked sympathy with and appreciation for the warm big heart that dwells within such a rough exterior." The banjo had become a symbol of derision, and caricatures of insipid, smiling African-Americans strumming the instrument were a cliche. In The Banjo Lesson, Tanner tackles this stereotype head on, portraying a man teaching his young protege to play the instrument - the large body of the older man lovingly envelops the boy as he patiently instructs him. If popular nineteenth-century imagery of the African-American male had divested him of authority and leadership, then Tanner in The Banjo Lesson recreated him in the role of father, mentor, and sage. The Banjo Lesson is about sharing knowledge and passing on wisdom." From Rings: Five Passions in World Art, by J. Carter Brown
|Daniel in the Lion's Den|
|Raising of Lazarus|
During his life in France, he moved away from genre painting dealing with African-American topics and instead, painted religious works, influenced by his trips to the Middle East and his own religious faith. Although he never lived in American again, he was a symbol of hope to generations of African-American artists including the artists of the Harlem Renaissance, all of whom struggled against the racism and bigotry in the United States. Although his traditional style was rejected by later generations of African-American artists. According to Alan Locke, an African-American scholar, Tanner never developed a school of Negro art."(Locke, 1933). But that was not Tanner's goal and he should not be judged by such a narrow ideology. When placed among his peers, other painters of the 19th century, he is as skillful a painter as any. During the final years of his career, he received international acclaim, numerous medals and was awarded the distinction of the title of the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water. c. 1907. Des Moines Art Center.