The papers of the expatriate African American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner measure 2.3 linear feet and date from the 1860s to 1978, with the bulk of the material dating from 1890 to 1937. Found in the papers are scattered biographical, family, and legal materials; twenty-seven folders of correspondence with family, friends, patrons, and galleries; writings and notes by Tanner and others; a small amount of printed material; numerous photographs of Tanner, his studio in Paris and home in Trepied, Normandy, his family, friends, fellow artists, and his artwork. Additional photographs include a circa 1890 shot of Tanner with fellow students at the Académie Julian and another depicting Tanner with members of the American Art Club in Paris, circa 1900. Also found are a few sketches and drawings.
Scope and Content Note:
The papers of the expatriate African American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner measure 2.3 linear feet and date from the 1860s to 1978, with the bulk of the material dating from 1890 to 1937. Found in the papers are scattered biographical, family, and legal materials; twenty-seven folders of correspondence with family, friends, patrons, and galleries; writings and notes by Tanner and others; a small amount of printed material; numerous photographs of Tanner, his family, friends, his artwork, and the galleries at the Chicago Art Institute; and a few sketches and drawings.
Biographical material contains identification documents, awards, family and personal bibles, scattered records of his membership in the Societe Artistique de Picardie and the American Expeditionary Forces, address books, family history, a file concerning a lawsuit against the Bethel A.M.E. Church, and a few records documenting the sale of his artwork. Tanner's personal and professional correspondence is with his wife Jessie, his family, friends, patrons, art galleries, and others. Letters are from various family members, his closest friend Atherton Curtis and his wife Ingeborg, friend J.S. Carpenter who was president of the Des Moines Association of Fine Arts and arranged for sales of Tanner's work in the mid-west, Grand Central Art Galleries in New York, and J.J. Taverty who purchased Tanner's work for the High Museum in Atlanta. Topics of note covered in the correspondence include the sale and exhibition of his artwork and his work for the Red Cross.
Writings and Notes by Tanner include two small notebooks, one of which he kept during his travels in Europe and Palestine in 1897. Also found are his scattered loose writings, jottings, and other notes on various subjects, including autobiographical notes. Writings by others include notes and an essay by his wife Jessie, and a manuscript, "The Life and Works of Henry O. Tanner," by his son Jesse. Printed Materials document Tanner's career and other interests through exhibition announcements, news clippings, printed reproductions of artwork, a published autobiographical essay, and other miscellaneous items. The collection includes numerous photographs of Tanner, family and friends, his studio in Paris, his home in Trepied and in Spain, travels, and artwork. Additional photographs include a circa 1890 shot of Tanner with students at the Académie Julian and another depicting Tanner with members of the American Art Club in Paris, circa 1900. Artwork consists of an ink drawing of a Paris studio and pencil sketches by Tanner.
The collection is arranged into 6 series:
Series 1: Biographical Material, circa 1890-1937 (Box 1, 4, OV 5; 0.8 linear feet)
Series 2: Correspondence, circa 1890-1978 (Box 1, OV 5; 0.6 linear feet)
Series 3: Writings and Notes, 1897-circa 1950s (Box 1-2, OV 5; 9 folders)
Series 4: Printed Material, 1897-1975 (Box 2, OV 5; 9 folders)
Series 5: Photographs, 1860s-1943 (Box 3, OV 5; 0.4 linear feet)
Series 6: Artwork, 1891-1893 (Box 3; 2 folders)
African American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Benjamin Tucker Tanner, a college-educated teacher and minister, and Sarah Miller Tanner, a former slave. Benjamin Tanner was very active in the African Methodist Episcopal (A. M. E.) Church, eventually becoming a bishop, and the family often moved while Henry was a small child. They settled in Philadelphia, and as a teenager, Tanner spent his free time painting, drawing, and visiting art galleries. In 1880 he enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he studied under several master art instructors, including Thomas Eakins who greatly influenced his early work.
Tanner moved to Atlanta, Georgia in 1888 and opened a photography gallery which was not very successful. After teaching briefly at Clark College, a sponsorship from his patrons Bishop and Mrs. Joseph Crane Hartzell allowed him to travel to Europe in 1891 and study at the Académie Julian in Paris. There he was taught by Jean Joseph Benjamin-Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens. After returning to Philadelphia in late 1892, he painted many works depicting African American subjects, including The Banjo Lesson (1893). He returned to Paris in 1894. There, his work began to receive favorable reviews, particularly at the Paris Solon for his biblical scenes. Tanner began to specialize in painting bible imagery and scenes, and traveled to Palestine in 1897 and 1898 and later to Morocco to study costumes, customs, and cityscapes.
In 1899 Tanner married Jessie Macauley Olssen, a young woman from San Francisco living in Paris. Also around this time reproductions of his artwork were published in a few popular American magazines, and Tanner began to receive praise for his artwork in the United States. Tanner, however, objected to being labeled as "Negro artist". Despite their misgivings, the couple moved back to the United States for a short time. Their son, Jesee Ossawa Tanner was born in 1903. One year later Tanner and his wife returned to Paris and made it their lifelong permanent home, only occasionally visiting the United States for exhibitions of his work. They also maintained a leisure farm in Trepied, Normandy.
Tanner continued to exhibit his work in Paris, develop his painting technique and imagery, and travel, becoming friends with many artists throughout Europe. In 1913 he became president of the Societe Artistique de Picardie and during World War I he worked for the American Red Cross in France. In 1923 he was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor in France for his work as an artist. Tanner became affiliated with Grand Central Art Galleries and other dealers in the United States and had great success there during the 1920s. When Jessie Tanner died in 1925 Henry was grief stricken and remained in poor health for the remainder of his life. He continued to paint occasionally until his death in 1937.
Also found at the Archives of American Art are the Marcia M. Mathews papers relating to Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1937-1969, available on microfilm reels 64 and 3268. Archives of American Art microfilm reel 4399 contains the Alexander family papers relating to Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1912-1985, the originals of which are housed in the University of Pennsylvania Archives. Microfilm reel 4397 is a copy of the the Henry O. Tanner letters to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1885-1909, loaned for microfilming by the Academy.
The Henry Ossawa Tanner papers were donated in several increments by his son, Jesse O. Tanner, between 1967 to 1978. Additional papers were donated by Jesse O. Tanner through Marcia M. Mathews, who was in possession of Tanner's papers to write Tanner's biography. Four medals were transferred to the Archives from the National Museum of African Art.
The collection has been digitized and is available online via AAA's website.
The Henry Ossawa Tanner papers are owned by the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Literary rights as possessed by the donor have been dedicated to public use for research, study, and scholarship. The collection is subject to all copyright laws.