America’s First Internationally Acclaimed Black Artist Is Subject of Major Exhibit in Philadelphia

by Jim Weaver



Henry Ossawa Tanner was to American art what Jackie Robinson was to American baseball.  Born in 1859, just two years before the Civil War began, Tanner faced immense racial discrimination that forced him eventually to move to Europe where only his artistic talent mattered.  And, by any measure, he was a great talent.

Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit 
(January 28 – April 15, 2012) a major exhibit of his work can now be seen at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. The exhibit contains over 100 works, including 12 paintings never before presented in a Tanner retrospective. Tanner studied at the Academy from 1879 to 1885.

Tanner’s Resurrection of Lazarus, 1896, from the collection of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, was the career-making canvas that earned Tanner his first international praise when it was exhibited in 1897.  It is the first time this work has been shown in the United States.  Other major works in the exhibit include The Banjo Lesson, 1893, from the Hampton University Museum and The Annunciation, 1898, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Accompanying the exhibition is the most substantial scholarly catalogue to date on Tanner’s life, including 14 essays written by established and emerging scholars from the United States and France.  In addition, the first-ever children’s book about Henry Ossawa Tanner, written and illustrated by the renowned American artist and author Faith Ringgold, has been published and is available.

In collaboration with the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, the exhibition will also present the first scientific and technical analysis of Tanner’s artistic materials and methods.

Following its presentation in Philadelphia, the Tanner exhibit will be shown at the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Tanner enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1879. Here he studied under Thomas Eakins then “Professor of Drawing and Painting” who practiced new art instruction methods such as drawing and painting from live models, direct discussion of anatomy in male and female classes, and dissections of cadavers to further familiarity and understanding of the human body. Eakins’s progressive views and ability to excite and inspire his students would have a profound effect on Tanner. The young artist proved to be one of Eakins’s favorite students.  Two decades after Tanner left the Academy Eakins painted his portrait, making him one of very few students to be so honored.

Tanner traveled to France in 1891, entered the Académie Julian, and joined the American Art Students Club of Paris. The city was a welcome escape for Tanner since within French art circles the issue of race did not matter. Tanner adjusted quickly to Parisian life. Here he was introduced to many new artworks that would affect the way in which he painted. 

His painting entitled Daniel in the Lions Den was accepted into the 1896 Paris Salon. Later that year he painted The Resurrection of Lazarus. The critical praise for this piece solidified Tanner’s position in the artistic elite and heralded the future direction of his paintings to mostly biblical themes. This painting would eventually lead to Tanner’s first trip to the Middle East funded by Philadelphia art critic Rodman Wannamaker.  He felt that any serious painter of biblical scenes needed to see this environment firsthand and that a painter of Tanner’s caliber was well worth the investment.  Tanner would remain in Paris for the remainder of his life.

Founded in 1805, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is America’s first school of fine arts and museum.  A recipient of the 2005 National Medal of Arts presented by the President of the United States, it is a recognized leader in fine arts education. Nearly every major American artist has taught, studied, or exhibited at the Academy. Learn more at www.pafa.org. ; Persons planning to visit Philadelphia should
view www.visitphilly.com.