In celebration of Black History Month, I’d like to take a moment to revel in the lush paintings of internationally-renowned artist Henry Ossawa Tanner.


Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1859-1937

A history of his life is available to read at Black History Now (which I highly encourage you to check out when you can). Another great read is this article on NPR by Susan Stamberg.

I’ve included a quote from the former article as a brief summary of his life:

“Henry Ossawa Tanner was the preeminent black artist of the 19th century, and the first African American painter to be recognized internationally as a master in the Naturalist traditions of American art. He found his true vision, and recognition, only after journeying to Paris to live and work, and ultimately to the Holy Land for his best-known depictions of Biblical scenes in a more allegorical genre. He set an example for generations of black creators with his desire not to be “…one of your everyday kind of artists….”


Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Studio


Now that we know a little more about Tanner’s life, let’s take a moment to appreciate the beauty of his art.




Religious themes were a large component of Henry O. Tanner’s work, some of my favorites I’ve included below.


Ressurection of Lazarus, 1896


Salome, 1900


Christ at the Home of Mary and Martha, 1905


The Holy Family, circa 1909-1910


The Annunciation, 1898

It’s clear just from these paintings alone that Henry O. Tanner was a master of light and shadow. I love the simplified shapes of light surrounded by a sea of darkness. Lots of contrast and intentional compositions.




These paintings almost seem to vibrate with energy and force, even while depicting quiet scenes. The night scenes he painted here are teeming with life, successfully avoiding the common pitfall of making the night feel dull or almost dead.

The middle painting may seem deceptively simple, but he was able to capture a complex light of a sunset (or sunrise), all with a few brushstrokes, a feat few artists can master.


Abraham’s Oak, 1905


The Seine, c. 1902


The Good Shepherd, 1902-1903



I absolutely adore these studies. I love the contrast of the strong, bold lines with the delicacy and care of the anatomy. The gesture of the limbs, as well as the energy  and rhythm of the lines, create a beautiful balance. I could stare at these all day!


Hand of Henry O. Tanner, ca. 1930


Study of Two Hands, n.d.

Look at those hands! So much emotion is captured without even showing the face.

Self-Portrait, 1910


Man Sitting in a Chair, 1889


Study for Rachel from The Mothers of the Bible, ca. 1898


Study for Disciple Kneeling at the Tomb, n.d.




I thought I would save his personal work for last (for no reason in particular), but I believe the phrase “last but not least” definitely applies here.


Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1897

I love how this one has so much warmth as well as heaviness to it. Her name was Sarah Tanner. She seems like she was a strong and sensitive person.


The Banjo Lesson, 1893


The Thankful Poor, 1894

I love when artists are able to portray seemingly mundane moments as beautiful snapshots of life. Henry O. Tanner successfully captures this feeling. You can feel the love and connection between the family members in these quiet moments.


Thank you for reading along with me and learning more about the emotional and sensitive artwork of Henry Ossawa Tanner, I’m grateful to have learned more about him and to be inspired by his beautiful work!