Browse Similar Masterworks

Waterfall, North Carolina, c. 1889
Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
21 5/8 x 14 inches
Signature Details: H O Tanner with initials in monogram
Status: Placed in a Private Collection

The first African-American artist to gain international acclaim and described by Hale Woodruff as “a remarkable man of profound intelligence and scholarship…a man of personal dignity and elegance,” Henry Ossawa Tanner was not only a respected artist, but also a champion for human rights, a patriot, and an inspiration for younger African-American artists who flocked to Europe for his mentorship.  Born in Pittsburgh and raised from the age of thirteen in Philadelphia, Tanner was brought up within the tightly knit world of America’s burgeoning African-American intelligentsia. His mother Sarah had been born a slave who escaped north to Pennsylvania through the Underground Railroad, and his father Benjamin Tucker Tanner, a Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, fought prejudice and other social issues.

Tanner was inspired to be an artist in his teens when he encountered a landscape painter while walking through Fairmount Park. The year 1876 marks the creation of his earliest work, a harbor scene, painted in Atlantic City, during a summer trip in which he met the artist Henry Price with whom he spent a year studying. Three years later in 1879, he started attending classes taught by Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, becoming the only black student. Eakins had a profound impact on the young artist’s artistic formation. An oft remembered criticism, “Get it, get it better, or get it worse. No middle ground of compromise,” aided him in all walks of his life.  He developed a thorough knowledge of anatomy through study from live models, and he continued to work under Eakins’ tutelage intermittently through 1885. Becoming one of his mentor’s favorites, Tanner had the distinction of being one of only a handful of students whose portrait Eakins painted (The Hyde Collection, Glen Falls, New York).

In the years leading up to his first European sojourn, Tanner attempted to establish himself as a painter in Philadelphia. He set up a studio on Chestnut Street and began exhibiting works at the Pennsylvania Academy and at the National Academy of Design. In the late 1880s, he operated a photography studio in Atlanta to earn money before traveling to Europe in January of 1891 to continue his studies abroad. Although his original destination was to be Rome, he decided instead to remain in Paris, where he studied with Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens at the Académie Julian and observed the work of Gustave Courbet and Jean-Baptiste Chardin at the Louvre. Aside from its cultural richness, he found Paris a welcome escape from the racial tensions and lack of acceptance in America. It was so to his liking that except for occasional and brief returns home, he spent the rest of his life there.

Tanner began to establish a reputation and soon settled at the art colony Etaples in Normandy. He explored the French countryside, painting marine scenes and landscapes, followed by genre subjects. Courbet’s influence is particularly evident in the young artist’s embrace of this milieu, featuring ordinary people in their environments at work or leisure. For example, Tanner’s The Young Sabot Maker, 1895 (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City) parallels the theme of apprenticeship and manual labor in Courbet’s The Stone Breakers, 1850 (destroyed).  

In 1893, the artist paid a return visit to America, the year of perhaps his most famous work, The Banjo Lesson (Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia), which features an elderly black man teaching a young boy, possibly his grandson, to play the banjo. A sensitive interpretation of real life, the overall effect of this painting focuses upon a moment of human interaction rather than the more common stereotypical portrayal of African Americans. This painting was Tanner’s first submission to the Paris Salon in 1894.

Another work of similar sentiment, The Thankful Poor, 1894 (Collection of William H. and Camille O. Cosby) tells the story of an older black man and presumably his grandson, saying grace before their meager meal. As in the earlier painting, this work is a social commentary of the time as the artist captures the essence of hardship in the daily lives of black Americans.  Although these were paintings closest to his core, the painting for which he won a prize during this time was for a non-African-American subject, The Bagpipe Lesson,” painted in Brittany in 1892-1893 (Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia).

By 1895-1896, however, his subject matter changed primarily to religious themes, focusing upon biblical stories of the nativity, crucifixion, and resurrection. This shift occurred as Tanner was experiencing a spiritual struggle that he had decided to serve God more faithfully. However, his commitment to racial equality was never far from his mind as he stated: “The notations of birth and rebirth inherent in these subjects are easily linked to messages of human rights and social justice, and they relate to issues of equality.” Two notable works from 1896 include:  Daniel in the Lion’s Den (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), which was accepted into the Paris Salon that year, and Resurrection of Lazarus (Musee d’Orsay, Paris), which solidified the artist’s position among the artistic elite and foretold the future direction of his biblical paintings.

Tanner visited the Holy Land in 1897, traveling through Palestine and Egypt from January to April. This was the first of two trips to the Near East that were paid by Rodman Wanamaker, the department store magnate and an important patron from Philadelphia, who was impressed with the artist’s religious images and felt that he needed a first-hand look at the setting he was painting. Tanner returned to the Holy Land for five months beginning in October of 1898. These excursions solidified his mantra that would occupy him for the next decade. As he was exhibiting annually at the Paris Salon during this period, he focused on the execution of one painting at a time and completed major works such as The Annunciation, 1898 (Philadelphia Museum of Art).

In 1899, Tanner married Jessie Macauley Olssen, a woman of Swedish-Scottish descent from San Francisco, who was studying music in Europe. They settled in the Latin Quarter of Paris, where the artist took up illustrative work. He rendered four biblical illustrations for a series of life stories of famous mothers of the Bible for Ladies Home Journal. Once again showing sympathy toward struggling factions of society, he was also sensitive to the status of women during this period.

After spending time in Algeria in 1908 and later Tangier and other Moroccan cities, Tanner ventured into Orientalism. The backdrop of his paintings there, shifted to North African architecture and illumination of light. Although he continued with religious subjects, he was driven by Impressionism and other Modern precepts to lighten his palette and loosen his brushstrokes, as was more fashionable with his contemporaries. In depicting the people of these areas, Tanner showed great pride in his roots, as his father had characterized North African people as descended from Ham, the biblical progenitor of the black race.

During World War I, he worked for the Red Cross Public Information Department and was commissioned by them to paint activities and subjects relating to the Red Cross at the front lines This body of work includes rare depictions of African-American troops as well as several large paintings owned by The American Red Cross in Washington, DC, including Canteen at the Front, Intersection of Roads at Neufchateau, and ARC Canteen, Tour, France, all from 1918.  Tanner served as a Lieutenant on the French Front from 1914-1918 and for his service, was made a knight of the Legion of Honor in 1923.

During the 1920s until his death, he befriended young African-American artists flocking to Paris, including Aaron Douglas, William H. Johnson, William Harper, Palmer Hayden, William Edouard Scott, and Hale Woodruff. Tanner, serving as a mentor, not only discussed artistic technique with them, but also gave advice on assimilating with French society. In so doing, his influence on the African-American art that followed him was significant. After his wife died in 1925, he sold the family villa in Les Charmes in Trepied. He died twelve years later in Etaples in 1937, survived by his son Jesse.

Despite being an expatriate, Tanner gained a wide audience for his work in the United States. Several solo exhibitions were organized during his lifetime, he was elected an Academician at the National Academy of Design, the first African-American artist to receive this distinction, and he served on the jury for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts annual exhibitions. His international reputation is evidenced by the critical attention he received at the 1906 Salon, where he was awarded the second-class medal, the highest award an American could achieve, for The Disciples at Emmaus (Musee d’Orsay, Paris). In more recent times, two major retrospectives have been held: Henry Ossawa Tanner at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and traveling, January 20, 1991-March 1, 1992, and Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and traveling, January 12, 2012-January 6, 2013. During the Clinton administration, Tanner’s Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City, circa 1885, holds the distinction as the first painting by an African-American artist to have been purchased for the permanent collection of the White House.

The Painting

The present painting is a discovery and comes from a rare period in the artist’s career during his sojourn to the South in the late 1880s. Tanner knew that travel to Europe was his only hope at continued advancement in art and his livelihood. With his education at stake and with the need to raise the necessary funds, he felt the solution was to combine business with art. Since he had a reasonable degree of skill in photography, he resolved that as a commercial photographer, he could save money for his trip, in addition to being able to continue to paint. Considering Philadelphia too large and competitive for his venture, he instead turned to Atlanta, a progressive and growing city, where African Americans had greater opportunity to advance. He left for Georgia sometime in the late summer or fall of 1888.

Tanner set up his photography gallery in Atlanta but had little success. However, he did meet Bishop and Mrs. Joseph Crane Hartzell who became his patrons. They helped him secure a position as an art teacher at Clark University, a Methodist liberal arts college for black students founded in 1869 and located a few miles south of Atlanta. Before his classes began and during the summer of 1889, he had heard of the beauty and favorable climate of the mountains in North Carolina and decided to go to Highlands, where he rented a small cabin and began to take photographs. Here, his business garnered some success, and the scenery led him to resume painting. As a young man, Tanner sought places to paint where he could escape the strapping of racial discrimination and commune with the natural world, which explains the more numerous landscape paintings in his early work.

The artist’s landscapes from this period combine the subtle light and color effects of Tonalism and generally feature touches of bravura to delineate vegetation and other elements of nature. These canvases possibly show the influence of fellow Philadelphian Edward Moran or the style of Christopher Shearer, a Pennsylvania landscape artist trained in Dusseldorf and Munich. The most important work identified from this genre is a more sizable painting, Mountain Landscape, Highlands, North Carolina, circa 1889 (Berea College Art Collection, Berea, Kentucky). Panoramic in its approach, it features flowery detailed vegetation in the foreground with the mountains beyond and atmospheric clouds hovering over their crests. Other southern subjects from this trip include: Untitled Landscape, circa 1889 (Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center, Inc.) and watercolors, Mountain Landscape, Highlands, North Carolina, and Highlands, N.C., both 1889 (both, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC).

Works from this period in Highlands, North Carolina, are rare and those that have been identified sport lively spontaneous brushwork as is evident in Waterfall, North Carolina, circa 1889, a recent discovery. This painting likely may have been done onsite, given its smaller scale and more specific focus on a waterfall buried within the forest’s interior. The rushing waters are enhanced by impasto, showing the strength of the drop from the hillside above to the pool below, while broken branches demonstrate the yield of the water’s force. The artist’s use of browns and greens in a more Tonalist mode is contrasted with the stark white of the water’s spray. In the upper right, three figures, one a man leaning on a rifle or walking stick, stand on a rock, their size overwhelmed by the majesty of the falls, showing man’s subservience to nature.

 Hale Woodruff, “My Meeting with Henry O. Tanner,” Crisis, vol. 77 (Jan. 1970), p. 7, as quoted in Dewey F. Mosby, Henry Ossawa Tanner (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1991), p. 21

 Tanner’s middle name Ossawa was chosen by his abolitionist father after Osawatomie, Kansas, the site of John Brown’s bloody confrontation with pro-slavery partisans on August 30, 1856.

 Henry O. Tanner, “The Story of an Artist’s Life, Parts I and II.” The World’s Work, vol. 18, nos. 2 and 3 (June and July 1909), p. 11665, as quoted in Mosby, p. 59Tanner won a medal at the 1895 Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta for this painting.

 Mosby, p. 149

 Ibid., p. 13

 Tanner also found inspiration in the African-American community there, witnessing their poverty and quality of life; The Banjo Lesson was painted from sketches that he made there. When he returned to Atlanta in the fall of 1889 to begin teaching, he also painted portraits and made plaster busts. However, when he still could not sell enough paintings to raise funds for his European trip, the Hartzells bought several of his works, which allowed him to begin his travels in 1891.

Related Literature

Anna O. Marley, ed., Henry O. Tanner: Modern Spirit (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), p. 21; 176-180

Marcia M. Mathews, Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 31-41

Dewy F. Mosby, Henry Ossawa Tanner (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1991), pp. 83-85

1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
Get Our Email Newsletter
Created by . Easy site updating through Backstage CMS.