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

Tanner, Henry Ossawa, 1859-1937

Photographer, Painter, Educator, Illustrator

The papers of Henry Ossawa Tanner in the Archives of American Art were digitized in 2007. The papers have been scanned in their entirety, and total 2,532 images.

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

Collection Information

Size: 2.3 Linear feet

Summary: 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.

Biographical/Historical Note

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.


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.

Related Materials

Language Note

English and French English; French


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