Biography: The firstborn son of former slaves living in Pennsylvania prior to the Civil War, Henry Ossawa Tanner was a member of an educated African American elite centered in Philadelphia, of whom there were many pioneering individuals. He went on to become the first academically trained African American artist, and as one of many American painters living and exhibiting abroad, became the first internationally-renowned African American artist. In the two decades prior to World War I, Tanner submitted his religious paintings annually to the highly competitive French Salons, and was elected to the prestigious title of Chevalier of Legion of Honor by the French government in 1923. However he is best known for two paintings of African American life that he likely completed during a trip back to the United States, The Banjo Lesson and The Thankful Poor .
After experiencing difficulty obtaining an apprenticeship, Tanner enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1879 and continued to receive instruction there until 1885. While at the Academy, benefitted from the tutelage of Thomas Eakins (1844–1916). Tanner departed for Rome in 1891 to further his education but decided to remain in Paris as a student at the Académie Julian. With The Resurrection of Lazarus, his award-winning 1897 submission to the Paris Salon, Tanner achieved transnational success. He became a leader in an Anglo-American artists’ community in northern France, where he explored a type of Orientalism based on religious themes and developed complex artistic techniques. World War I and its aftermath drastically reduced the amount of paintings that he produced, yet he his work and career continued to be celebrated at major exhibitions in France and the United States. Tanner died a distinguished painter of global repute and was a prominent figure for African American artists of the generations that followed.