Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859 – 1937) was the first African American painter to achieve international renown. Born in Pittsburgh, and son of an AME preacher, he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia where he was befriended by Thomas Eakins.
A naturally timid man, Eakins was tormented by incidents of racism that led him to move to Paris in 1891, where he remained until his death. There, he had the opportunity to study the Louvre’s masterpieces, which profoundly influenced his work. He preferred Biblical subjects. Art critic and son of Philadelphia department store owner Rodman Wanamaker was so moved by Tanner’s depiction of Daniel in the Lion’s Den that he offered to fully fund a trip to the Holy Land so that Tanner could more fully enter into the spirit of the place.
His most famous painting, however, The Banjo Lesson, departed from religious themes and represented a tender scene of an old man teaching his grandson to play the instrument. It was painted on one of his rare return visits to Philadelphia and portrayed African Americans without the usual minstrel stereotypes. Tanner’s legacy reaches back to the country where he used to feel so unwelcome. One of his paintings hangs in the White House.
Today’s expression, à l’œuvre on reconnaît l’artisan, (a luvruh ohn reconeh lartizahn) means the same in French as in English, “one recognizes a workman by his work.” Tanner’s work is recognizable for his distinctive use of light and for his great rapport with his subject. Tanner said that he preached with paint; the depth of his connection with his faith shows in his work.
Update: There will be a major exhibit of Tanner’s work at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art January 27 to April 15, 2012.