Henry Ossawa Tanner explained his early interest in painting. At the young age of thirteen, while walking in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, with his father, he was fascinated by the sight of an artist at work. He was so impressed that he rushed home and attempted to copy the same landscape from memory, using house-painter’s brushes on the cardboard back of an old geography book.
Tanner pursued his chosen career with such skill and application that even the opposition of his family could not stop him. Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, gave him all the support possible, once it was evident that Henry’s interest was genuine. For many years, Henry worked hard at developing his technique, modeling the animals in the zoo in Philadelphia, painting seascapes, and studying under William Chase and Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he received excellent training in draftsmanship and painting techniques.
Eakins, who was a friend and teacher, held that: “If America is to produce great painters and if young art students wish to assume a place in the history of their country, their first desire should be to remain in America, to peer deeper into the heart of American life.” This was the highest order of preaching, since at that time it was considered essential to study and work in Europe since it was the fountainhead of all great art.
Tanner failed to heed Eakins’s advice. Although, for a short period he taught at Clark College in Atlanta and spent his spare time painting landscapes and the folk of the North Carolina mountains. His work of this period, of which The Banjo Lesson is an example, hinted that at last African-American life would inspire a genre painter who would portray his race with sensitivity and understanding. Unfortunately, this promise was not fulfilled.
Tanner was very unhappy at Clark College. Friends and admirers encouraged him. But, no doubt he experienced the usual racism, and perhaps mistook the obstacles faced by young artists the world over as further evidence of discrimination. He became convinced he could not succeed in America and became determined to study in Europe. With the help of Bishop Hartzell, who arranged a one-man show for him and who ended up purchasing most of his paintings, Tanner finally succeeded in reaching Paris, France. Here he studied under Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens at the Academie Julien.
Tanner developed a mature style grounded on his earlier work with Eakins and his admiration for Rembrant, and he tried his hand at a variety of paintings. During summers in Brittany he painted a number of landscapes. Some of them were Bois dAmour, Evening Near Pont-Aven, Rocks at Concarneau, and Return of the Fishing Boats. He also painted a series of genre paintings of Breton life, which are reminiscent of his earlier pictures of African-Americans in North Carolina. Such paintings as The Bagpipe Lesson and The Sabot Makers show the same sensitivity for his subjects that we find in The Banjo Lesson.
Originally headed for the ministry, and influenced by his father, Bishop Tanner, the artist had deep religious feelings that were expressed in his work. In the Paris Salon of 1896 he received honorable mention for a painting called Daniel in the Lion’s Den. With the support of Rodman Wanamaker, Tanner visited Palestine. This trip inspired him to paint a great biblical series that brought him fame. His success with this theme was followed by others in the same sentimental vein.
His paintings won prizes in the Paris Salons and were purchased by many American museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Chicago Art Institute, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The French Government made him a member of the Legion of Honor. He was also the recipient of a gold medal from the Exposition Universelle International and a bronze medal from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Most important of all, he became the first African American to be elected to a full member of the National Academy of Design.
In spite of his recognition and talent, Tanner remained an expatriate for forty-five years. Embittered by sensational publicity about his race, he became a studio recluse. Among his best-known paintings are The Resurrection of Lazarus, The Disciples at the Tomb, Christ Walking on the Water, The Annunciation, and Christ and Nicodemus.
Recently some one hundred and fifty drawings, lithographs, etchings, and watercolors, were discovered which lay unnoticed for almost forty years in Tanner’s dusty old studio in Paris. This cache of paintings reveal new dimensions in his work. No matter what the final judgment of Tanner’s work, the honors accumulated by him in his life place him in a unique position in American art.