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February 21, 2022

Henry Ossawa Tanner

In 1906 the paintingThe Two Disciples at the Tomb won a $500 prize at a Chicago art competition. A journalist wrote: “The picture shows the faces of Peter and John before the tomb of the Savior with a fine light playing across their features which are strained with expectancy.” More than a century later, this painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner is on display at the Chicago Art Institute. Tanner was born in 1859 to a formerly enslaved woman. Tanner’s middle name, Ossawa, was an abbreviated form of Osawatomie, the town in Kansas where the abolitionist John Brown began his antislavery rebellion. After studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts — where he was the only African American — and a stint teaching at Clark University in Atlanta, Tanner moved to Paris in 1891. During this period he turned toward biblical themes. In Paris, Tanner was awarded a medal at the famed Paris Salon for his painting Resurrection of Lazarus. The French Government bought it as a museum piece. Tanner took several trips to the Middle East, including six months spent around Jerusalem. Upon returning from the first of these trips, he paintedNicodemus Visiting Jesus, which won the prestigious Lippincott Prize. Ten years before his death, Tanner was the first African American to become a member of the National Academy of Design in New York. Although his fame declined in subsequent decades, it was revived in 1969, when the Smithsonian exhibited his work — the first significant exhibition of his work in the United States.

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