6 Paintings by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Get to know the first internationally renowned African American artist

Discover more about the pioneering artist's life through these these 6 iconic paintings...

1. Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City (c. 1885)

This lyrical and evocative landscape is probably the first major painting of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s early maturity, and may have been exhibited soon after he finished at both the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the National Academy of Design in New York. It may also mark the culmination of his formal study with Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy.

Although he is widely known for the religious images that he began to paint in the mid-1890s, Sand Dunes in its profound quietude is as reverential and as memorable as those more overtly sacred scenes.

Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City, Henry Ossawa Tanner, c. 1885 (collection: The White House)

2. The Good Shepherd, 1914

Henry Ossawa Tanner traveled far during his lifetime, forsaking Philadelphia and Atlanta for Paris and the Middle East. Tanner painted The Good Shepherd during one of several trips to the Holy Land.

Tanner, the son of the minister of the first independent African-American Episcopal church in the United States, was particularly drawn to religious imagery, and created a large body of religious paintings.

Although painted far from the United States, many interpreted these works as closely allied with domestic issues and concerns. Having been the first African-American student to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, he fled the United States for more egalitarian Paris partly due to his unequal treatment in American art schools. Through paintings like The Good Shepherd, Tanner sought to convey a spirit of compassion and equality that, as he famously said, might “make the whole world kin.”

The Good Shepherd, Henry Ossawa Tanner, circa 1914 (Collection: New Orleans Museum of Art)

3. The Young Sabot Maker, 1892

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Young Sabot Maker depicts a man and boy, likely a father and son, carving traditional wooden shoes (sabots) in Brittany, France. Such images of rural folk engaged in old customs were popular in the fast-changing world of the late 19th century. Tanner’s painting also evokes Christian associations as, according to biblical tradition, carpentry was the trade of Joseph, Jesus’ father. Fittingly, Tanner presented the painting as a gift to his mother and father.

The Young Sabot Maker, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1895 (Collection: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

4. Etaples Fisher Folk, 1923

Continuing his studies in Paris, it was as an expatriate that he became the first African American artist to win an international reputation.

In Etaples Fisher Folk, Tanner’s use of chiaroscuro (dark-light contrast) suggests the influence of seventeenth-century Dutch painters, particularly Rembrandt, and sets a solemn, religious tone for this scene of two peasants preparing a meal. Using an unusual technique, Tanner combined tempera and oils and applied them in heavy layers.

Etaples Fisher Folk, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1923 (Collection: High Museum of Art)

5. The Annunciation, 1898

Tanner painted The Annunciation soon after returning to Paris from a trip to Egypt and Palestine in 1897. The son of a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Tanner specialized in religious subjects, and wanted to experience the people, culture, architecture, and light of the Holy Land.

Influenced by what he saw, Tanner created an unconventional image of the moment when the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will bear the Son of God. Mary is shown as an adolescent dressed in rumpled Middle Eastern peasant clothing, without a halo or other holy attributes. Gabriel appears only as a shaft of light.

Tanner entered this painting in the 1898 Paris Salon exhibition, after which it was bought for the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1899, making it his first work to enter an American museum.

The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898 (Collection: Philadelphia Museum of Art)

6. The Miraculous Haul of Fishes, 1913 - 1914

The subject of this painting appears to be from the Gospel of Saint Luke, 5: 1-11. Standing by the Sea of Galilee, Christ sees two boats at the shore and their fishermen washing their nets. He enters Simon's boat, and after preaching to a crowd of followers on the shore, tells Simon to go out upon the lake and cast his net. Simon protests that they have taken nothing all the previous night, but at Christ's bidding will try again. Their net fills with so many fish it breaks; they call to the other boat for help, and both boats become so laden with fish they begin to sink. Christ tells them not to fear, "for henceforth thou shalt catch men. . . . they forsook all, and followed him."

Tanner was not a literal illustrator of Biblical stories. He distilled their spiritual essence by reducing all representative details to a few essentials and rendering these in a nearly expressionist style.

"My efforts have 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

The Miraculous Haul of Fishes, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1913/1914 (Collection: National Academy Museum & School)

Learn more about Henry Ossawa Tanner and his paintings here.

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