Henry Ossawa Tanner Biography

Henry Ossawa Tanner, an African American painter, gained international fame for his ability to depict landscapes and biblical themes. His interest in art began during his teenage years, and he was particularly drawn to the artistic freedom and lack of racial discrimination in Paris, where he studied under renowned academic painters. Influenced by realist artist Thomas Eakins, Tanner’s early works such as ‘The Banjo Lesson’ and ‘The Thankful Poor’ reflect his dedication to portraying the daily life of black individuals in a dignified manner. Inspired by his travels to places like Tangier and the Holy Land, he also created paintings with religious themes, including ‘Daniel in the Lions’ Den’. Tanner’s artistic style often mirrored his sense of photography, and his talent was recognized with prestigious honors such as the Order of the Legion Honor.

Quick Facts

  • Died At Age: 77
  • Born Country: United States
  • Realist Painters
  • American Men
  • Died on: May 25, 1937
  • Place of death: Paris, France
  • U.S. State: Pennsylvania
  • Notable Alumni: Académie Julian
  • City: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • More Facts
  • Education: Pennsylvania Academy Of The Fine Arts, Académie Julian

Childhood & Early Life

Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States, into a religious African-American family. He was the eldest of nine children of Benjamin Tucker Tanner, a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Sarah Tanner. When he was young, his family moved to Philadelphia. He attended the Robert Vaux School and later several African-American schools where he studied a liberal arts curriculum. From an early age, he was attracted to the arts and dreamed of becoming a painter. Due to his poor health, he spent most of his time at home and used that time to work on his drawings. In 1876, he created paintings of harbor scenes, landscapes, and animals from the Philadelphia zoo. After recovering from his illness, he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1880, where he studied under the guidance of Thomas Eakins, a renowned American sculptor and realist painter who had a great influence on Henry’s life and work.


After completing his studies, Henry moved to Atlanta, Georgia, to teach art at Clark University. During this time, he also attempted to open a photography studio, but it was unsuccessful. With the help of Bishop Joseph C. Hartzell, he exhibited some of his paintings in Cincinnati. In 1891, he went on a tour across Europe with the patronage of the bishop and Mrs. Hartzell. It was during this trip that his visit to Paris changed his life. He was fascinated by France’s artistic world, which was much more advanced than America’s art world. He decided to stay in Paris for the rest of his life. In Paris, he attended the Academie Julian, an art school, and began incorporating colors like blue and blue-green into his paintings. He also started using the artistic technique of light and shade. In 1893, he returned to the United States to deliver a paper on African Americans and art at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. During this time, he created some of his famous works, including “The Banjo Lesson” and “The Thankful Poor.” He continued to display his paintings at various exhibitions in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Chicago, and other art centers in America. One of his remarkable creations was “Abraham’s Oak,” which he drew in 1905.

Major Works

One of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s most famous works is “The Banjo Lesson,” which he created in 1893. The painting depicts a young boy learning to play the banjo from an elderly gentleman. The use of light and shade in the image is particularly noteworthy. Another notable work is “The Raising of Lazarus,” painted in 1897, which won a medal at the Paris Salon. He also received the Lippincott Prize from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1900 for his painting “Nicodemus Visiting Jesus,” which depicts a meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus.

Personal Life & Legacy

In 1899, Henry Ossawa Tanner married Jessie Ollsen, an American opera singer. They had a son named Jesse Ossawa Tanner in 1903. Henry passed away at his home in Paris. He is remembered as a representative of African-American creative individuals and his legacy lives on through his impactful artwork.


Henry Ossawa Tanner’s middle name, Osawatomie, was named after white militant Abolitionist John Brown’s nickname. John Brown was given this name to honor the memory of the Battle of Osawatomie, Kansas.

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