Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner, born June 21, 1859 in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania., was an American painter and the first African American artist who gained international acclaim for his depiction of landscapes and biblical themes. After a childhood spent mostly in Philadelphia, Tanner began his art career in 1876, mostly painting harbor scenes, landscapes, and animals from the Philadelphia Zoo. 

In 1888 he moved to Atlanta to open a photography studio, but the venture failed. With the help of Joseph C. Hartzell, a bishop from Cincinnati, Ohio, Tanner secured a teaching position at Clark University in Atlanta. In 1890 Hartzell arranged an exhibition of Tanner’s works in Cincinnati and, when no paintings sold, Hartzell purchased the entire collection himself.

With these earnings, Tanner traveled to Paris in 1891 to enroll at the Académie Julian. During this period he lightened his palette, favouring blues and blue-greens, and began to manipulate light and shadow for a dramatic and inspirational effect. Henry returned to the United States in 1893, in part to deliver a paper on African Americans and art at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Tanner died peacefully on May 25, 1937 at his home in Paris at the age of 77. After his death, Tanner’s artistic stature declined until 1969, when the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., exhibited several of his works. This was the first major solo exhibition of a black artist in the United States. In 1991 the Philadelphia Museum of Art mounted a touring retrospective of his works.


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