Born in Pittsburgh and raised in Philadelphia, African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937) spent his mature career in France, where he won great fame for paintings based on religious subjects. Tanner had left the United States in 1891 to escape racial prejudice and find artistic opportunity. From the 1890s until his death, Tanner’s allegiances remained divided between his adopted home in France and his origins in the United States. In a series of biblically-themed paintings produced across his four decades in Europe, Tanner repeatedly acknowledged this experience of being a sojourner abroad, separated from his birthplace.
A discovery I recently made in the Tanner papers at the Archives of American Art provides new information about two of the artist’s paintings—one of them long thought to be lost, and the other under-studied and little-understood. This revelation also enriches our understanding of Tanner’s conflicted relationship with America, suggesting how the artist might have come to terms with his expatriate identity.
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