One of the difficulties in writing about outstanding African Americans is what I call the "first to" syndrome. Black film maker, Gordon Parks put it succinctly, "The first black this, the first black, that. I don't appreciate that as much as people think I do. I have no doubt there were other blacks who could have done it just as well or a lot better." It's patronizing. It's also very difficult to avoid. Alas, art history is no less prone to this fault than any other subcategory. And while the recipients of such titles welcome the success, they are often acutely conscious of the terms under which their fame is portrayed. Perhaps in the past, there was not this sensitivity. Whatever the case, in discussing the life, times, hardships, and success of African-American painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner, the story comes couched in so many such "firsts" that you'll please excuse me if I succumb to this problem.
Henry was born in 1859, in Pittsburgh, the oldest of seven children of a minister and his wife, living in the North, outside the bonds of slavery, just as the war to decide this travesty was starting to heat up. He grew up in Philadelphia where he discovered "art in the park" so to speak by watching an itinerant artist selling his work. At the age of twelve, he borrowed fifteen cents from his mother for paint and brushes. He never stopped painting until his death 66 years later. Henry Tanner was fortunate from birth. He grew up in a black, middle-class family at a time when that alone would have almost qualified as a "first." Not unlike many families at the time, his parents considered his art a nice hobby but pushed him to find a "real job." He tried for two years, working in a mill, then got sick. His parents relented and allowed him to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine arts where he became a skilled painter.
Like his original inspiration, as a young man, he traveled around, trying to eke out a living. Much of his time he spent in North Carolina where he painted mostly religious scenes, trying to save enough money to finish his education in Europe. He ended up in Atlanta, Georgia, with an unsuccessful photography studio and a modest teaching position at Clark University. It was there a friend of the family arranged a public showing of his work. Not one painting sold. The friend, in dismay, bought them all himself. With the money, Henry finally made it to Europe where he studied for six years at the Academie Julien. Finding less racism in his adopted country, he remained there the rest of his life. He never changed his style or his subject matter despite the dozens of new art movements swirling about Paris in those years. In 1897, he became only the third American to have a painting purchased by the French Government (The Raising of Lazarus). During the war, he was a lieutenant with the Red Cross. Later, his work won numerous awards both in this country and France, culminating in 1923 when he was awarded the French Legion of Honor. He was the FIRST American of any race to be so honored.