Artist Henry Ossawa Tanner

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; used with permission
Henry Ossawa Tanner (American, 1859-1937). The Young Sabot Maker, 1895. Oil on canvas. 118.4 x 87.9 cm (46 5/8 x 34 5/8 in.). Purchase: the George O. and Elizabeth O. Davis Fund and partial gift of an anonymous donor, 1995. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Born June 21, 1859, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Henry Ossawa Tanner is America's best known and most popular ​​African American artist born in the nineteenth century. His painting The Banjo Lesson (1893, Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia), hangs in many classrooms and doctors' offices across the nation, familiar and yet not fully understood. Few Americans know the artist's name, and fewer still learn about his outstanding accomplishments that often broke through racist barriers.

Early Life

Tanner was born into a religious and well-educated household. His father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, graduated from college and became a minister (and later bishop) in the African Methodist Episcopalian Church. His mother, Sarah Miller Tanner, who was enslaved from birth, was sent north by her mother through the Underground Railroad as a freedom seeker. (The name "Ossawa" is based on the anti-enslavement activist John Brown's nickname "Osawatomie" Brown, in honor of the Battle of Osawatomie, Kansas in 1856. John Brown was convicted of treason and hanged on December 2, 1859.)

The Tanner family moved frequently until they settled in Philadelphia in 1864. Benjamin Tanner hoped his son would follow him into the ministry, but Henry had other ideas by the time he was thirteen. Smitten with art, the young Tanner drew, painted and visited Philadelphia exhibitions as often as possible.

A short apprenticeship in a flour mill, which compromised Henry Tanner's already frail health, convinced Reverend Tanner that his son should choose his own vocation.


In 1880, Henry Ossawa Tanner enrolled in the ​Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, becoming Thomas Eakins' (1844-1916) first African American student. Eakins' 1900 portrait of Tanner may reflect the close relationship they developed. Certainly, Eakins' Realist training, which demanded meticulous analysis of human anatomy, can be detected in Tanner's early works such as The Banjo Lesson and The Thankful Poor (1894, William H. and Camille O. Cosby Collection).

In 1888, Tanner moved to Atlanta, Georgia and set up a studio to sell his paintings, photographs and art lessons. Bishop Joseph Crane Hartzell and his wife became Tanner's principal patrons and ended up purchasing all his paintings in an 1891 studio exhibition. The income allowed Tanner to head for Europe to further his art education.

He traveled to London and Rome and then settled in Paris to study with Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921) and Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant (1845-1902) at the Académie Julien. Tanner returned to Philadelphia in 1893 and encountered racial prejudice that sent him back to Paris by 1894.

The Banjo Lesson, completed during that short period in America, drew from the poem "The Banjo Song," published in Paul Lawrence Dunbar's (1872-1906) collection Oak and Ivy around 1892-93.


Back in Paris, Tanner began to exhibit at the annual Salon, winning an honorable mention for Daniel in the Lion's Den in 1896 and The Raising of Lazarus in 1897. These two works reflect the predominance of biblical themes in Tanner's later work and his stylistic shift to a dreamy, iridescent glow throughout his images. In Birthplace of Joan of Arc at Domrémy-la-Pucelle (1918), we can see his impressionistic handling of the sunlight on the facade.

Tanner married the American opera singer Jessie Olsson in 1899, and their son Jesse Ossawa Tanner was born in 1903.

In 1908, Tanner exhibited his religious paintings in a solo show at the American Art Galleries in New York. In 1923, he became an honorary chevalier of the Order of the Legion of Honor, France's highest award of recognition. In 1927, he became the first African American full academician elected into the National Academy of Design in New York.

Tanner died at home on May 25, 1937, most likely in Paris, though some sources claim that he died in his country home in Etaples, Normandy.

In 1995, Tanner's early landscape Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City, ca. 1885, became the first work by an African American artist acquired by the White House. This was during the Clinton Administration. 

Important Works

  • Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City, ca. 1885, White House, Washington, D.C.
  • The Banjo Lesson, 1893, Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia
  • The Thankful Poor, 1894, William H. and Camille O. Cosby Collection
  • Daniel in the Lion's Den, 1896, Los Angeles County Museum of Art
  • The Raising of Lazarus, 1897, Musée d'Orsay, Paris


Tanner, Henry Ossawa. "The Story of An Artist's Life," pp. 11770-11775.
Page, Walter Hines and Arthur Wilson Page (eds.). The World's work, Volume 18.
New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1909

Driskell, David C. Two Hundred Years of African American Art.
Los Angeles and New York: Los Angeles County Museum and Alfred A. Knopf, 1976

Mathews, Marcia M. Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969 and 1995

Bruce, Marcus. Henry Ossawa Tanner: A Spiritual Biography.
New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2002

Sims, Lowery Stokes. African American Art: 200 Years.
New York: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 2008

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Gersh-Nesic, Beth. "Artist Henry Ossawa Tanner." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Gersh-Nesic, Beth. (2023, April 5). Artist Henry Ossawa Tanner. Retrieved from Gersh-Nesic, Beth. "Artist Henry Ossawa Tanner." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).