Henry Ossawa Tanner papers, 1860s-1978, bulk 1890-1937

A Finding Aid to the Henry Ossawa Tanner Papers, 1860s-1978 (bulk 1890-1937), in the Archives of American Art, by Erin Corley

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Funding for the processing and digitization of this collection was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Table of Contents:

Biographical Information

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.

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Overview of the Collection

Scope and Contents

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.

Arrangement and Series Description

The collection is arranged into 6 series:

Subjects and Names

This collection is indexed in the online catalog of the Archives of American Art under the following index terms. People, families and organizations are listed under "Subjects" when they are the topic of collection contents and under "Names" when they are creators or contributors.


  • Académie Julian
  • Art Institute of Chicago
  • Old American Art Club (Paris, France)


  • African American painters -- France -- Paris
  • Expatriate painters -- France -- Paris
  • Art -- Economic aspects
  • Painters -- United States

Types of Materials:

  • Photographs
  • Sketches


  • Tanner, Jessie O., 1873-1925
  • Tanner, Jesse O., 1903-
  • Curtis, Atherton
  • Carpenter, J.S.
  • Taverty, J.J.
  • Grand Central Art Galleries


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.

Separated and Related Materials

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.

How the Collection was Processed

The papers were microfilmed in several increments shortly after each donation on reels D306-D307, 3268, 107 and 3480. All of the accessions were merged, processed, arranged, and described by Erin Corley in 2007 with funding provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

How to Use the Collection

Restrictions on Use

The collection has been digitized and is available online via AAA's website.

Ownership & Literary Rights

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.

Available Formats

The bulk of the Henry Ossawa Tanner papers were digitized in 2007 and are available on the Archives of American Art's website.

How to Cite this Collection

Henry Ossawa Tanner papers, 1860s-1978 (bulk 1890-1937). Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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Detailed Description and Container Inventory

Series 1: Biographical Material, circa 1890-1937
(Box 1, 4, OV 5; 0.8 linear feet)

Found here are published biographies, including Tanner's 1937 obituary; identification documents, such as passports and Red Cross identity card; a one-page handwritten record of Tanner family marriages, possibly removed from a family bible; a small personal bible and larger family bible; membership documents for the Societe Artistique de Picardie, and the American Expeditionary Forces. A few documents concern his father Benjamin Tucker Tanner's estate. There is one file regarding a lawsuit with the Bethel A. M. E. Church over the church's failure to pay for a commissioned work of art by Tanner. Also found are three of Tanner's address books, loose addresses, scattered notes, lists, and a few receipts regarding the sale of his paintings. Award certificates and medals include his Legion of Honor medal and National Academy of Design membership certificate.

Items are arranged in chronological order within each folder.

Box Folder
1 1 Published Biographical Summaries, circa 1905, 1925, 1937
1 2 Identification Documents, 1915-1918, 1936
(See also OV 5)
1 3 Tanner Family Marriage Record, circa 1890
1 4 Societe Artistique de Picardie Documents, 1914
1 5 American Expeditionary Forces Documents, 1918-1921
1 6 Benjamin Tucker Tanner Estate Documents, circa 1923-1935
1 7 Bethel A. M. E. Church Legal Documents, 1929
1 8-9 Address Books, circa 1900-1920s
(2 folders)
1 10 Loose Addresses, circa 1900-1930
1 11 Documents regarding sale of paintings, circa 1890-1937
1 12 Award Certificates, 1901-1927
(See also OV 5)
1 13-14 Award Medals, 1900-1927
(2 folders)
1 15 Personal Bible, circa 1920s
(Not scanned)
4 (hol) Family Bible, 1899
(Not scanned)
OV 5 Identification Documents, 1915
(See also Box 1, F2)
OV 5 Award Certificates, 1901-1927
(See also Box 1, F12)

Series 2: Correspondence, circa 1890-1978
(Box 1, OV 5; 0.6 linear feet)

This series contains Henry Ossawa Tanner's personal and professional correspondence, with the bulk of the letters dating after 1900 until his death in 1937. Found here are letters from members of the Tanner family, including his sisters Mary and Belle, several nieces, and one letter from Benjamin Tucker Tanner to Jessie Olssen Tanner. These letters primarily discuss family news. Also found is correspondence between Tanner and his wife Jessie, including telegrams and letters from Jessie while Tanner was traveling in Jerusalem and while serving in the Red Cross in 1918. A small amount of correspondence with his son Jesse Ossawa Tanner exists here. Also found is correspondence with Tanner's friend J. S. Carpenter, president of the Des Moines Association of Fine Arts, that concerns sales of Tanner's work in the mid-west, and with his closest friend Atherton Curtis and his wife Ingeborg. Additional correspondence is with Grand Central Art Galleries in who represented his art in the New York area, with J. J. Haverty who purchased Tanner's work for the High Museum in Atlanta, and with Tanner's brother-in-law Charles Tough. Tanner also received numerous letters of condolence after the death of his wife in 1925.

General chronological correspondence includes letters from friends, patrons, dealers, galleries, and others. Business letters concern loans of paintings for exhibitions, requests for photograph reproductions, information requests for articles, commissioned artwork, and inquiries about purchasing paintings. Also included are more intimate correspondence with friends, letters of congratulations, and correspondence with his wife's family. A small amount of the general correspondence is in French. Additional material found in this series is a letterbook containing carbon copies of letters Tanner wrote during 1918 while working for the Red Cross, and Jesse Tanner's correspondence with others concerning Henry Tanner's death and his artwork.

Items are arranged chronologically within each folder.

Box Folder
1 16 Tanner Family, 1910-1937
1 17 Tanner, Jessie Olssen, 1899, 1918, 1925
1 18 Tanner, Jesse Ossawa, 1909-1934
1 19 Bateman, Jessie, 1931-1935
1 20 Carpenter, J. S., 1919-1936
1 21 Curtis, Atherton & Ingeborg, 1904-1937
1 22 Grand Central Art Galleries, 1927-1936
1 23 Haverty, J. J., 1929-1934
1 24 Tough, Charles C., 1927-1935
1 25 White, Clarence Cameron, 1932-1935
1 26 Letters of Condolence, 1925
(See also OV 5)
1 27 Calling cards, circa 1890-1930
1 28 Greeting Cards, circa 1890-1937
1 29 Invitations, circa 1920s
1 30 Letter Book, 1918
1 31-40 General Correspondence, 1892-1937
(10 folders)
1 41 Undated Correspondence, circa 1892-1937
1 42 Jesse O. Tanner Correspondence with Others, 1937-1978
OV 5 Letters of Condolence (List of Letters), 1925
(See also Box 1, F26)

Series 3: Writings and Notes, 1897-circa 1950s
(Box 1-2, OV 5; 9 folders)

This series contains writings by and about Henry Ossawa Tanner. Writings by Tanner include two pocket-sized notebooks, one of which was kept during his travels in Europe and Palestine in 1897. Also found are loose writings and notes, primarily fragments of his autobiographical writings, and also draft essays and notes on various subjects. Writings by others include an essay by Jessie Olssen Tanner about women's lives in France during WWI. Writings by Tanner's son Jesse include a two volume manuscript with attached news clippings and additional notes about the life and work of his father. Also found is an essay about Tanner by the writer and journalist Eunice Tietjens, and a few unidentified writing fragments.

Box Folder
1 43 Henry Ossawa Tanner, Notebooks, 1897, circa 1913
Box Folder
2 (hol) 1-2 Henry Ossawa Tanner, Writings & Notes, circa 1900-1930s
(2 folders; see also OV 5)
2 (hol) 3 Jessie O. Tanner, "Women Behind the Firing-Line In France," 1914
2 (hol) 4 Jesse O. Tanner, Manuscript, "The Life and Works of Henry O. Tanner," circa 1950s
2 (hol) 5 Jesse O. Tanner, Notes for "The Life and Works of Henry O. Tanner," circa 1950s
2 (hol) 6 Jesse O. Tanner, Miscellaneous Writings, circa 1920s
2 (hol) 7 Eunice Tietjens, "H. O. Tanner," 1914
2 (hol) 8 Unidentified Miscellaneous Writings, undated
OV 5 Henry Ossawa Tanner, Writings & Notes, circa 1900-1930s
(See also Box 2, F1-F2)

Series 4: Printed Material, 1897-1975
(Box 2, OV 5; 9 folders)

Printed material includes exhibition announcements for Tanner and other artists, news clippings from magazines and newspapers (mostly American publications) about Tanner and exhibitions of his artwork, and news of art events in France. Also found is a two part article "The Story of an Artist's Life," by Henry Ossawa Tanner in World's Work from June and July 1909. Other miscellaneous printed material includes brochures, pamphlets, progams and other miscellanoues printed items mostly relating to religion and the civil rights of African Americans.

Items are arranged chronologically within each folder.

Box Folder
2 (hol) 9 Exhibition Announcements, 1913-1975
2 (hol) 10-14 News Clippings, 1897-1934, 1970
(5 folders)
2 (hol) 15 Reproductions of Artwork, circa 1900-1920
(Not scanned)
2 (hol) 16 The World's Work Magazine, 1909
(Partially scanned)
2 (hol) 17 Miscellaneous Printed Material, circa 1910-1933, 1964
(See also OV 5)
OV 5 Miscellaneous Printed Material, circa 1910-1933, 1964
(See also Box 2, F17)

Series 5: Photographs, 1860s-1943
(Box 3, OV 5; 0.4 linear feet)

Found here are numerous photographs of Tanner, his family, and friends. Included are several portraits of Tanner - a photograph of him on horseback as a young man, in his military uniform during WWI, and painting in his studio. Also found is a circa 1890 photograph of Tanner with other fellow students at the Académie Julian, and another dated circa 1900 taken with members of the American Art Club in Paris. Other photographs of Tanner depict him with his wife Jessie, son Jesse, and friends at social gatherings, and together in Morocco. Additional family photographs include portraits of Jessie as a young woman, Jesse as a small child and playing with friends, and several portraits of Jessie and Jesse together, including one in which they are posing for Tanner's painting "Christ Learning to Read." Also found are photographs of Tanner's parents, Benjamin Tucker Tanner and Sarah Tanner, a tintype of Sarah Tanner's sister, and other Tanner family members, including portraits of Henry Tanner's sisters Mary, Sadie, Bertha, and Isabella, and a few of his nieces. The collection contains several photographs of Tanner's close friend Atherton Curtis and his family, including his first wife Louise and his second wife Ingeborg. Photographs of Tanner's teacher Benjamin Constant, other friends, and an ambrotype of an unidentified woman are found here. Additional photographs are of Tanner's studio in Paris, his tent and campground in Palestine, his residences, including his home in Trepied, Normandy, and of two exhibitions, one at the Chicago Art Institute. Also found are numerous photographs of Tanner's paintings and drawings.

Items are arranged chronologically within each folder.

Box Folder
2 (hol) 18 Photographs of Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1890-1935
2 (hol) 19 Photographs of Henry Ossawa Tanner with Family & Friends, circa 1890-1935
(Includes a circa 1890 photograph of Tanner with fellow students at the Académie Julian and one depicting Tanner with members of the American Art Club in Paris, circa 1900)
2 (hol) 20 Photographs of Jessie & Jesse Tanner, circa 1890-1943
2 (hol) 21 Photographs of Benjamin Tucker Tanner & Sarah Tanner, circa 1897-1920
2 (hol) 22 Photographs of Tanner Family Members, circa 1890-1900
Box Folder
3 (hol) 1 Photographs of Atherton Curtis & Family, circa 1895-1935
3 (hol) 2 Photographs of Others, circa 1870s-1910
3 (hol) 3 Unidentified Portrait of Woman, 1860s
(See Black Cabinet, Drawer 3: Cased Photographs)
3 (hol) 4 Photographs of Henry Ossawa Tanner Studio, circa 1937
3 (hol) 5 Photographs of Tanner's Tent in Palestine, circa 1899
3 (hol) 6 Photographs of Tanner Residences, circa 1917
3 (hol) 7 Photographs of Exhibition, Art Institute of Chicago, 1905
3 (hol) 8 Photographs of Exhibition, Exposition at de Touquet, 1913
3 (hol) 9-14 Photographs of Artwork, circa 1920s
(6 folders; see also OV 5; not scanned)
3 (hol) 15 Photographs of Artwork, Glass Plate Negatives, circa 1920s
(Not scanned)
OV 5 Photographs of Artwork, circa 1920s
(See also Box 3, F9-F14; not scanned)

Series 6: Artwork, 1891-1893
(Box 3; 2 folders)

This series contains two examples of artwork executed by Henry Ossawa Tanner early in his career - an ink wash drawing of a studio in Paris, and a book, The Wreck of the Schooner "Storm" by Dwight Williams, with added pencil and ink illustrations by Tanner.

Items are arranged chronologically.

Box Folder
3 (hol) 16 Illustrations for The Wreck of the Schooner 'Storm', 1891
3 (hol) 17 Drawings of Paris Studio, 1893