Henry Ossawa Tanner, the first internationally recognized and acclaimed African American painter, was born in 1859 with pretty big shoes to fill. His father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner was a college-educated, major African American civil rights advocate of his time and presided over one of the largest Black church congregations as an African Methodist Episcopalian Minister. (His mother, Sarah Miller Tanner, escaped slavery as a passenger on the Underground Railroad.)
I still don’t comprehend why Tanner isn’t as commonly known as Andy Warhol or Jackson Pollock. At 21, Tanner attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and studied under Thomas Eakins— which is a pretty big friggin’ deal as Eakins is regarded as one of the most important artists in American art history. Tanner was elected the first African American academician of the National Academy of Design. He also received France’s highest honor as an honorary chevalier of the Order of the Legion of Honor. You’d think I would have heard something of Tanner while living in Atlanta since he did have a studio here and taught drawing at Clark College (which would eventually became Clark Atlanta University), but no.
Perhaps he is better known today in France, where he eventually moved to escape the prejudice and racism he experienced on these shores, where he was free to build respect and recognition for the caliber of his art. Tanner’s the Resurrection of Lazarus, 1897 became a part of the collection of the Louvre. He is remembered most for his religious themed artwork and his delicate depictions of Black life.
I first learned of Tanner after seeing a copy of The Banjo Lesson, 1893 online. I was pregnant with my son at the time and taken aback by this tender moment shared between father and son. I was reminded of the quiet way in which fathers teach their sons—the adoring child hanging on to every movement in hopes of accurately mimicking his hero, the father wishing to impart every import knowing full well (and sadly) that some lessons just can’t be taught.
I think now of how Tanner’s father hadn’t wanted him to pursue art as a career. Senior Tanner hadn’t wanted his son to struggle for recognition in a world all too eager to reject him. But how could Senior Tanner deny any dream of his son even as he fought to level the playing field for all other African Americans?
To learn more about Henry Ossawa Tanner and his work, click here.