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Luce Foundation Center for American Art

Painting: 20th century: Moses in the Bullrushes
Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner

(born Pittsburgh, PA 1859 -- died Paris, France 1937)

Henry Ossawa Tanner's Tent in Palestine
Henry Ossawa Tanner with his wife

"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

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.

Image Credits: Courtesy Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.