Sunday, March 30, 2014

Tanner, Henry Ossawa

The Thankful Poor
oil on canvas
90.2 x 112.4 cm
Private collection

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was an African-American artist who was the son of a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was raised in an affluent, well educated family. Although reluctant at first, his parents eventually responded to their son's unflagging desire to pursue an artistic career and encouraged his ambitions.

In 1879, Tanner enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He moved to Atlanta in 1889 in an unsuccessful attempt to support himself as an artist and instructor among prosperous middle class African-Americans. In 1891, he move to Paris. Illness brought him back to the United States in 1893, and it was at this point in his career that he turned his attention to genre subjects of his own race.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, who sought to represent black subjects with dignity, wrote: "Many of the artists who have represented Negro life have seen only the comic, the ludicrous side of it, and have lacked sympathy with and appreciation for the warm big heart that dwells within such a rough exterior."

After the painting of The Thankful Poor, he abandoned subjects of his own race in favor of biblical themes. When he returned to Paris in 1895, he established a reputation as a salon artist and religious painter but never again painted genre subjects of African-Americans.