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Henry Ossawa Tanner

Portrait of Henry Ossawa Tanner

A quiet man transcends racism to bring art back to religion

Henry Ossowa Tanner was a quiet, humble man whose health was a delicate as his round wireframe glasses. But a self-effacing demeanor hid the quiet strength that fueled Tanner’s fight through illness, poverty and racism to become an internationally renowned painter of religious art.

At age 13, Henry Ossowa Tanner’s apprenticeship at a flour mill finally broke his health. The sick boy recuperated at home, finally able to indulge in the passion his father resented — painting and drawing. It took until his late teens for Tanner’s health to improve, and finally, in 1879, Tanner left home and enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. At the time, he was the only black student. The Academy of Fine Arts was a foundational experience for Tanner — he found a mentor in the artist Thomas Eakins, but was abused by his fellow students. In his autobiographical article “The Story of an Artist’s Life,” he wrote:

“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.”

Work was thin on the ground in the years after his schooling — Tanner opened a photography studio in Atlanta, a short-lived experiment, but a solo exhibition helped him raise enough money to travel to Rome.

[Editor’s note: We're still researching Henry Ossawa Tanner, check back soon for the full biography]

Reed Enger, "Henry Ossawa Tanner, A quiet man transcends racism to bring art back to religion," in Obelisk Art History, Published March 30, 2016; last modified May 16, 2021, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/henry-ossawa-tanner/.

Read More
Spinning By Firelight, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Spinning By Firelight

1894
Les Invalides, Paris, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Les Invalides, Paris

1896
Lion Drinking, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Lion Drinking

1897
Portrait of the Artist's Mother, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Portrait of the Artist's Mother

1897
And He Disappeared out of Their Sight, Henry Ossawa Tanner

And He Disappeared out of Their Sight

1898
Study for the Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Study for the Annunciation

1898
The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner

The Annunciation

1898
Salome, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Salome

1900
The Good Shepherd, Henry Ossawa Tanner

The Good Shepherd

1902-1903
Abraham's Oak, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Abraham's Oak

1905
The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water, Henry Ossawa Tanner

The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water

1907
Angels Appearing before the Shepherds, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Angels Appearing before the Shepherds

1910
Entrance to the Casbah, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Entrance to the Casbah

1912
Gateway, Tangier, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Gateway, Tangier

1912
Mary, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Mary

1914
Fisherman's Devotions, Étaples, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Fisherman's Devotions, Étaples

1916
The Arch, Henry Ossawa Tanner

The Arch

1919
Moses in the Bullrushes, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Moses in the Bullrushes

1921

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