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Henry Ossawa Tanner's paintings

Henry Ossawa Tanner hands study

Check out this fascinating biography of Tanner on the Smithsonian’s website, which pairs his paintings with his major life events and includes a comprehensive gallery of his work

Charles Barkley's
Black History Month All Stars

All Star #14: Henry Ossawa Tanner

I speak at a lot of schools across the country, and I’ve encountered a trend that drives me freakin’ nuts. I always ask students the following question:

“How many of you want to be a professional athlete or a rapper?”

At inner-city, mostly African American schools, nearly every hand shoots up. When I ask the same question in a white suburban school, maybe 10 percent of hands are raised. I speak to a lot of schools, and this happens without fail.

I tell black kids all the time, “You ain’t gonna be me.” Even if you’re any good on the court, the odds are stacked against you. But I can tell from the blank way they look back at me: They’re putting all their eggs in this totally unlikely basket. But I get why. Young black kids get from the media an unrealistic picture of African American success. Athletes and rappers, with Denzel and Oprah thrown in.

So to mark Black History Month here at The Citizen, I’m going to introduce you every day to my Philadelphia Black History Month All-Stars. Many of them didn’t make it into the history books or even the newspapers of their time. But their stories are inspiring and worth knowing.


Henry Ossawa Tanner


Henry Ossawa Tanner


(June 21, 1859 – May 25, 1937)

Henry Ossawa Tanner was the first African American artist to gain recognition on the world stage. Noted for his depiction of landscapes and Biblical themes, Tanner’s work caught the eye of many, including Thomas Eakins, another famous 19th century painter from Philadelphia. Oddly, Tanner thanked his poor health early in his life for giving him the time to hone his artistic skills. He trained at the renowned Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Robert Vaux School before moving to Paris and settling there. “Nicodemus Visiting Jesus” is believed to be his most famous work.


  • Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
  • Robert Vaux School
  • Academie Julian



  • Won the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ Lippincott Prize in 1900
    Named honorary chevalier of the Order of the Legion Honor—France’s most distinguished award—in 1923
  • In 1927, Tanner was made a full academician of the National Academy of Design—becoming the first African American to ever receive the distinction.
  • Only African American enrolled during his time at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
  • Nicodemus Visiting Jesus” (c. 1898) won the PAFA’s Lippincott Prize in 1900
    The Raising of Lazarus” (c. 1897) won a medal at the Paris Salon of 1897


“I will preach with my brush,” Tanner said.

Home page image: © 2002 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Ras Malik. Photo by Jack Ramsdale

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