We’re celebrating black heroes who made history, and I want to introduce you to Henry Ossawa Tanner, an African American painter born in Pennsylvania. His father was a minister and tried to discourage Henry’s interest in art, but to no avail. However, it did influence him, as most of his paintings carried biblical themes.
At twenty-one, Tanner enrolled in the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the fine Arts as the only African American student. In 1891, he traveled to Paris and enrolled at the Académie Julian. During his time abroad, his paintings brought him notoriety. In 1893, he traveled back Pennsylvania where he was met and spurned by racial prejudice. Therefore, he left the United States and returned to Paris.
By 1894, his paintings were exhibited at the annual Paris Salon. Over the years, he won awards for Daniel in the Lions’ Den and The Raising of Lazarus—a rare accomplishment for an American artist and even more uncommon for an African American. Tanner’s paintings continued to win awards in Paris and finally in America as well.
In 1969, long after his death, the Smithsonian honored him through the first major solo exhibition of a black artist in the United States, recognizing Tanner as the first African American painter to gain international acclaim.