From the Industrial Revolution to World War I, C. 1850–1914

Late Nineteenth-Century Painting

Who was Henry Ossawa Tanner?

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937) was the first internationally renowned, African American artist and was the most successful African American artist of the nineteenth century. He studied under Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and later moved to Paris, where he spent the majority of his career. Tanner is often considered a Realist painter. For example, while The Annunciation (1898) is a common biblical subject, Tanner includes realistic details he drew from his travels in the Middle East, such as clothing styles and interior decoration that visually grounds the Virgin’s Mary’s divine encounter with the angel Gabriel. Tanner’s most famous painting, The Banjo Lesson (1893), is a quiet depiction of an elderly black man teaching a young boy to play the banjo. The painting emphasized the dignity of the scene during a time when similar scenes would have been rendered as comical or stereotypical. Like the paintings of French Realists such as Millet and Courbet, Tanner’s work exhibits social awareness and a sense of monumentality. Tanner’s later work was predominantly religious, as the artist preferred to paint biblical subjects that reflected the struggles of nineteenth-century African Americans.


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