The Artist Birthday Series

Henry Ossawa Tanner

Today’s Artist Birthday: Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner (June 21, 1859 – May 25, 1937) was an American artist. He was the first African-American painter to gain international acclaim. He moved to Paris in 1891 to study, and decided to stay there, being readily accepted in French artistic circles. His painting entitled Daniel in the Lions’ Den was accepted into the 1896 Salon.

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Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father Benjamin Tucker Tanner (1835-1923) was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination in the United States. Being educated at Avery College and Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, he developed a literary career. In addition, he was a political activist. His mother Sarah Tanner was born into slavery but had escaped to the North via the Underground Railroad. The family moved to Philadelphia when Tanner was young. There his father became a friend of Frederick Douglass, sometimes supporting him, sometimes criticizing.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, 18, age
Henry Ossawa Tanner, c. 1863

After practicing painting on his own for a few years, he decided to make art his career. Although many artists refused to accept an African-American apprentice, in 1879 Tanner enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, becoming the only black student.

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