Henry C Tanner (June 21, 1859 – May 25, 1937) was an African-American artist born into an family of nine children. His father was a Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. Henry’s mother, Sarah Miller Tanner, was a former slave who was liberated through the Underground Railroad and later worked as a teacher. When Tanner was thirteen the family moved to Philadelphia, and it was there that his love of art began to grow. He committed himself to a career in art despite his father’s initial discouragement. His father had hoped Henry would become a minister, however he became a minister in a different sense as one of his famous quotes proclaim:
“I will preach with my brush.”
-Henry Ossawa Tanner
At the age of 21 in 1880 Henry enrolled in the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. There, he studied under Thomas Eakins who had an enormous amount of influence on Henry, not only in the development of his style but also in his pursuit of art itself. Henry became an illustrator for the Harper Brothers publishing company. It was one of the few businesses willing to utilize the talents of minorities for artists and writers.
Despite the small success he had at Harper Brothers as an African American at the turn of the century, it was difficult for him to receive much encouragement to pursue a career as an artist. Aside from this disheartening fact, Henry’s good friend Eakins always championed for minorities, and even women, to boldly strive towards art making.
In 1888 Tanner began teaching at Clark College, but wanted to go abroad for more exposure and opportunity. He was able to gain enough funds to do so when a bishop and his wife purchased his entire collection.
He went on to Paris and was so taken by the inspirational spirit of the city, and its tolerance and cosmopolitan flavor, that he eventually made it his home.
His art, beautiful and expressive evolved through his experiences and travel to the Holy land where he was inspired to paint introspective religious subjects, for which he is now best known today.
In 1893 on a short return visit to the United States, Tanner painted his most famous work, The Banjo Lesson, while in Philadelphia. The painting shows an elderly black man teaching a boy, assumed to be his grandson, how to play the banjo. This deceptively simple-looking work explores several important themes and stereotypes.
In 1921 Tanner was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor, The highest honor the French government bestows on nonmilitary personnel.
Later in 1969, the Smithsonian exhibited many of his works and Henry Ossawa Tanner became the first artist of African American descent to have a major solo exhibition in the United States. In 1996, his work Sand Dunes at Sunset was bought by the White House and was the first piece by an African American artist to join the collection.