Larger Type
Smaller Type

Search Collections

Henry Ossawa Tanner Portrait

Henry Ossawa Tanner Portrait

Henry Ossawa Tanner

Also Known as: H. O. Tanner, Henry O. Tanner

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 1859

Paris, France 1937

Active in:

  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Trepied, France

Photo Caption:
Henry Ossawa Tanner, Self Portrait, ca. 1910, pencil and conte crayon on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum,Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Norman Robbins 1983.95.34.

Photo Caption:
Courtesy Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Luce Artist Quote

"My effort has been to not only put the Biblical incident in the original setting . . . but at the same time give the human touch 'which makes the whole world kin' and which ever remains the same." Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1924, quoted in Hartigan, Sharing Traditions: Five Black Artists in Nineteenth-century America, 1985


Working in France after 1891, Henry Ossawa Tanner achieved an international reputation largely through his religious paintings. Their deep spirituality reflects Tanner's upbringing as a minister's son as well as the influence of his visits to the Holy Land after 1897.

Head bent, gaze intent, hands clasped, The Savior [SAAM, 1983.95.191] is absorbed in contemplation or prayer. The circumstances of the solitary vigil are ambiguous. Has Tanner chosen a particular moment on the mountain, in the Garden of Gethsemane, or just before the Crucifixion? Or has he treated instead the very act of prayer as a means to salvation? Whatever the context, Tanner presents Christ as a man of humble origin rather than as a transcendent, godlike figure. His carefully delineated features and bowed posture create the psychological penetration of a portrait.

Based on one of his sketches of Near Eastern men, Tanner's study conveys Christ's timeless humanity, while its sensitivity and strong modeling reveal the artist's admiration for the portraits of his teacher, Thomas Eakins.

An expressive realism characterizes The Savior, reflecting Tanner's mounting interest in the work of French Symbolist painters at the turn of the century. The painting's mottled browns and beiges derive from his training in the French academic tradition; influenced by the Impressionists' light and color, he later abandoned his subdued palette.

Although Tanner remained active until 1936, he avoided avant-garde developments after 1900. Nor did he align his expressive style with the efforts of African-American artists during the Harlem Renaissance; believing that he could not fulfill his artistic potential while fighting discrimination in America, he moved to Paris in 1891. Nonetheless, Tanner's universal subject matter and the international dimensions of his career provided inspiration for future African-American artists.

Lynda Roscoe Hartigan African-American Art: 19th and 20th-Century Selections (brochure. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art)

Additional Biographies

Luce Artist Biography

Henry Ossawa Tanner was an African American artist who earned international acclaim for his religious paintings. His father was a prominent minister and his mother a former slave who escaped the South through the Underground Railroad. At age eleven, Tanner decided to become an artist, and nine years later the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts accepted him, the only African American out of two hundred students. At the suggestion of his teacher Thomas Eakins, Tanner tried his hand at photography but had little success. Like many American artists in the nineteenth century, he went to Europe, intending to study in Rome. After fourteen days in Paris, however, he decided to stay in France and enrolled in the Académie Julian. Sales of his paintings of Bible stories financed his trips to Palestine, Egypt, and Morocco. Tanner kept close ties with his native country and was proud of his contributions as a black American, but chose to live in France, where he felt that his race mattered less to other artists and critics.