With an interest in art from a young age, Henry Ossawa Tanner (June 21, 1859 – May 25, 1937), was a trailblazer for African-Americans in his time. His father was a preacher at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Pennsylvania and his mother, Sarah Tanner, was a slave from Virginia who escaped to the north by the underground railroad.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Henry’s formal art training started at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which set him up for an international art career that spanned both America and Europe. Even while facing opposition in his artistic endovers and marriage to a white woman, Henry become an inspiration to other African-Americans during his time.
As the only black student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1879, he soon became a favorite of African-American painter, Thomas Eakins, who had recently started teaching there. During that time, institutionalized art schools started to take a main role in the teaching the new generation of art students. Eakins was one of the first teachers at the Academy to teach his students using live models and dissecting human and animal bodies to help his students learn more about the structure and muscling of the human body. Known for his forward thinking attitude and ability to have his students keep a keen interest in all aspects of art, he had a monumental effect on his students, especially Tanner. They stayed friends for years after Tanner left the school, traveling and living in Paris for years, enriching his art and continuing to gain success and acclaim in the art world. 20 years after his time at the Academy, Eakins painted Tanner’s portrait, which he only did for a few of his pupils.
In his autobiography, The Story of an Artist’s Life: “I was extremely timid and to be made to feel that I was not wanted, although in a place where I had every right to be, even months afterwards caused me sometimes weeks of pain. Every time any one of these disagreeable incidents came into my mind, my heart sank, and I was anew tortured by the thought of what I had endured, almost as much as the incident itself.”
Tanner is the first African-American Artist to have his work in the permement collection of the White House. “Sand Dunes at Sunset,” was painted in 1885 and is an oil on canvas and was purchased by the White House Endowment Fund during the Bill Clinton administration from Dr. Rae Alexander-Minter, grandniece of the artist. Henry Tanner died when he was 77 years old in his home of Paris, France on May 25, 1937.