Works in the Collection
Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1859, but spent his youth in Philadelphia. His mother, Sarah Tanner, was a former slave who escaped North through the Underground Railroad, and his father was a Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a political activist, and friend of Frederick Douglas. Tanner’s early interest in painting led him to begin his studies independently before attending the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1880-1882 as the school’s only black student. There he studied with artist Thomas Eakins under whom he learned how to accurately draw the human body and paint according to the principles of realism. After his studies, Tanner worked briefly in his own studio in Philadelphia before relocating to Atlanta, Georgia where he opened a photography studio. It was during this time that Tanner gained the support and patronage of Bishop Joseph Hartzell, who financed an exhibition of his paintings in Cincinnati and provided the financial freedom necessary for him to go abroad and settle in France. In 1897, his painting “The Resurrection of Lazarus” was purchased for the Musee de Luxembourg, a turning point that furnished Tanner with a loyal patronage and a steady schedule of exhibitions. That same year he traveled to Jerusalem, a trip that thoroughly informed the religious and spiritual themes for which he is best known.
Tanner spent the majority of his professional career in France but continued to exhibit works in America. He is recognized today as one of the first African-American artists to achieve international renown. His painting, “Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City” (c. 1885), hangs in the Green Room at the White House and is the first painting by an African-American artist to be purchased for its permanent collection. His work can also be found in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, among many others. Tanner died in 1937.