Historical Markers
Henry O. Tanner Historical Marker
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Henry O. Tanner

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
2908 W. Diamond St., Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
January 19, 1991

Behind the Marker

Sepia image of Henry Ossawa Tanner.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1917.
The most important African-American artist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Henry Ossawa Tanner lived in Europe for his last forty-six years. As he explained to a correspondent: "Negro blood [Tanner was three-fourths white] counts and counts to my advantage - though it has caused me at times a life of great humiliation and sorrow. . . . this condition has driven me out of the country, but still the best friends I have are ‘white" Americans and while I cannot sing our National Hymn, ‘Land of Liberty," etc., still deep down in my heart I love it and am sometimes sad that I cannot live where my heart is."

The son of Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and Sarah Miller, he was born in Pittsburgh but moved to Philadelphia at the age of nine. His parents chose his middle name to honor "Ossawatomie", the nickname of abolitionist John Brown.
Oil on canvas of a frightened young girl sits on the edge of her bed, as she receives a visit from an angel messenger. The angel in this painting is depicted as a long stream of golden light.
The Annunciation, 1898, by Henry Ossawa Tanner.

Tanner was not Philadelphia's first African-American artist. A generation before Tanner, black Philadelphia artist markerRobert Bustill Bowser attempted to make a living by his art in the decades before the Civil War. A lack of commissions, however, forced him to paint signs, battle flags, and design pageants. Race relations were changed enough by the Civil War for young Tanner in the 1870s to take art lessons. But Tanner's family had enough money to provide him the best art education at the markerPennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts which was open to African- American students.

After Tanner's graduation, wealthy white Philadelphians subsidized his European education, and in Europe -if not in America - Tanner found collectors interested in collecting his art. Europeans, too, were more accepting of his marriage to Jessie Macauley Olssen, a white woman from San Francisco who served as his model in a number of paintings, including as Mary in "The Annunciation". The Tanners had one child, Jesse, "a blond, curly-headed little boy."
Oil painting of an older gentleman, with his young student sitting on his lap, while he teaches a lesson on the banjo.
The Banjo Lesson, by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1893.

Tanner's mother encouraged his talent, and at age twenty he became the second African American to enroll at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (the first was the distinguished Robert Douglass, Jr.) where he studied with markerThomas Eakins but encountered racist hostility from other students. His earliest works, exhibited while he was a student, were landscapes that already demonstrated his preference for brown, green, and blue green, and the use of large blocks of paint that did not portray objects in great detail. After Tanner tried his hand as a painter of animals and photographer in Atlanta, Bishop and Mrs. Joseph Crane Hartzell arranged his first exhibition in Cincinnati in 1890, which enabled him to study in Europe. He decided to stay in Paris where Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens were his teachers and Paul Gauguin his colleague.

Although Tanner returned occasionally to the United States, his activism in furthering his race's cause began and ended in the early 1890s. In 1893 he gave a paper on black painters and sculptors at the Columbian Exposition. The following year he unveiled "The Banjo Lesson" based on a Paul Lawrence Dunbar poem. It was the first of several works including "The Thankful Poor" and "The Young Sabot Maker" in which he portrayed African Americans as dignified human beings. Despite the urging of Booker T. Washington and others, however, he never returned to African-American themes.
An old man, with a long white beard, and a younger man sit conversing on blocks of stone.
Nicodemus Visiting Jesus, by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1899.

For the rest of his life, Tanner painted biblical subjects both to earn money and to express his devout Christianity. While the dark-skinned "Daniel in the Lions Den" (1896) suggests an African-American theme, his later work does not; "Nicodemus Visiting Jesus" at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and "Mary" at the small but superb La Salle University Art Museum are two of his finer pieces that may be viewed in Philadelphia.

Deeply troubled by the First World War, Tanner served as assistant director of the Farm and Garden Services of the American Red Cross and won the French Cross of the Legion of Honor for organizing wartime relief. The army commissioned him to sketch life and combat on the Western Front; the Red Cross published these drawings in Canteen at the Front. Some of his settings were based on travels in the Holy Land and North Africa.

After winning numerous prizes and honors in both France and the United States, Tanner experienced declining health and output although the quality of his work remained high. Tanner received, along with African-American artist markerMeta Warrick Fuller, the highest praise from markerAlain Locke, the leading black critic of the Harlem Renaissance, marker in his writings on African American art.
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