Henry Ossawa Tanner was born June 21, 1859, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the oldest of nine children. His father was a minister and scholar prominent in the African Methodist Episcopal Church; his mother a private school teacher and former slave. His middle name was derived from Osawatomie, the town in Kansas where, in 1856, the white militant John Brown launched his antislavery campaign. The family moved to Philadelphia in 1868 and Henry enrolled at the Robert Vaux Consolidated School for colored students, which had a liberal arts curriculum that did not discourage students with art interests, as did most schools of the day; he eventually graduated as the valedictorian of his class. In 1872, at the age of 13, Henry observed an artist at work in the city's Fairmount Park, and the teenager decided on the spot to become an artist himself. The compositional elements used by that artist - a middle distance landscape with a prominent foreground object - would remain with Tanner over the whole of his career. Self-taught initially, Henry first painted marine scenes and then animals from the Philadelphia Zoo. His earliest Adirondack landscapes were painted during a convalescent trip to Rainbow Lake in 1878. But his unwavering desire not to be "...one of your everyday kind of artists..." led him to realize the need for formal training, and in 1879 he enrolled in the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, studying under the renowned artist and teacher, Thomas Eakins; he was to remain a student there sporadically until 1885. Tanner's New York debut came in April, 1885, and in 1886 he opened his own studio in Philadelphia. In 1889, he moved to Atlanta and opened a photography studio, which proved unsuccessful, and after a summer in the highlands of North Carolina, he taught drawing at Clark University in Atlanta. In 1891, Tanner traveled to France where he studied under Jean-Paul Laurens at the Academie Julian and joined the American Art Students Club of Paris. After a brief return to Philadelphia in 1893, when he painted "The Banjo Lesson", a realistic study of black life, he settled back in Paris in 1895, believing he could not fulfill his artistic aspirations while fighting discrimination in America. Tanner spent over half of the rest of his life in France, there finding an expansive and more accepting environment, free from the racial strife found in much of the U.S. But he made it clear that he wished to be identified ethnically as black, and not to be judged solely on that account.
By the mid 1890's, Tanner's strong faith increasingly asserted itself, and he turned from producing sensitive genre scenes of African Americans and French country people to creating the religious paintings for which he is best known. The artist wrote, "...my effort has been not only to put the Biblical incident in the original setting...but at the same time give the human touch...to convey to my public the reverence and elevation these subjects impart to me..." Influenced by Impressionist color and symbolist spiritualism, his works grew increasingly free in handling, with jewel-like colors. His painting "Daniel in the Lion's Den" won honorable mention at the Paris Salon of 1896, and the French government purchased "The Resurrection of Lazarus" for the Louvre in 1897; these were among many honors and awards that were bestowed upon him.
Many of Tanner's subjects are based on his studies of African Americans from Georgia and North Carolina, his Caucasian wife, Jessie, whom he married in 1899, and the men and women he encountered while traveling in the Middle East and North Africa in 1897 and 1898. Like his teacher, Eakins, he endowed his subjects with a strong sense of modeling and psychological penetration in numerous sketches and paintings.
Tanner worked for the American Red Cross Department of Public Information in France during World War I. In September, 1918, he was granted permission to sketch in the Military Advanced Zone and his depictions of African American soldiers is virtually unique among his contemporaries.
Although Tanner remained active until 1936, he did not adjust his expressive style to the period's artistic innovations. He also resisted periodic attempts of African American leaders to enlist him as a spokesman, preferring to concentrate on artistic rather than racial issues. Nonetheless, his commitment, spiritual motivation, and international acclaim have inspired generations of African American artists. Tanner died May 25, 1937, in Paris, survived by one son, Jesse.