Painter and printmaker. The preeminent African-American artist of his day, Tanner specialized in visionary biblical subjects. He also painted genre scenes, portraits, landscapes, and animal pictures. Internationally recognized, he lived in France during most of his career. The first black elected to the National Academy of Design, he engaged sophisticated postimpressionist and symbolist currents. Yet his expression remained independent, unpretentious, and accessible to a nonspecialist audience. Tanner was born into an accomplished, intellectually oriented family in Pittsburgh. Reflecting his parents' dedication to civil rights, his unique middle name derives from the Kansas Territory town of Osawatomie, home of radical abolitionist John Brown in the mid-1850s. As a child Tanner moved with his family to Philadelphia, where he trained in the early 1880s under Thomas Eakins and Thomas Hovenden at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He painted seascapes and animal subjects before leaving in 1889 for Atlanta. There he opened an unsuccessful photography studio and taught at Clark College (now part of Clark Atlanta University). Early in 1891 he departed for Europe, where he subsequently made his home. In Paris he studied at the Académie Julian with Jean-Paul Laurens and Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant. During the summer of 1891 in Brittany, he became familiar with the work of Gauguin and other postimpressionists. In the early 1890s he painted both French and American genre subjects, including one of his best-known works, The Banjo Lesson (Hampton [Virginia] University Museum, 1893). Transforming the stereotypical black banjo player into a figure of dignified humanity, it pictures an old man instructing the small boy on his lap. With its uncomplicated composition, richly worked paint surface, and glowing, almost transcendental light, the painting creates a mood of detachment from worldly concerns. Art unites the two in psychological intimacy, sensuous pleasure, and purpose.
Within a few years, Tanner turned chiefly to religious subjects, which he interpreted with increasing attention to the abstract elements of form and color as carriers of mood and spirituality. From his visits to the Holy Land in 1897 and 1898–99 and to North Africa in 1908 and 1912, he brought back ethnographic and archeological detail. More importantly, he employed his observations of light, vernacular architecture, and flowing costume to re-imagine sanctified themes, often allegories of justice and compassion. In the Miraculous Haul of Fishes (National Academy Museum, New York, 1927 or earlier), Christ and the fishermen appear as frail laborers within the ample, listing, lozengelike shape of their heavy boat. Streaming, golden light and resplendent colors suggest the potential of mundane activity to yield events of wondrous import. From 1904 Tanner made his home for some time in Sceaux, a Paris suburb, but also frequently visited his country house in the artists' colony of Trépied, near Étaples on the English Channel. Menaced there in 1914 by the advancing German army, Tanner fled temporarily to England. Even after his return, he found creative activity impossible during World War I. He worked with the Red Cross and at the war's conclusion immediately traveled to the front to record American soldiers, particularly African Americans. He continued to paint almost until his death in Paris.