Life and career
Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Benjamin Tucker, a minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Sarah Miller Tanner, a private school teacher. Tanner was the oldest of nine children. In 1864, Tanner and his family moved to Philadelphia, where his artistic interests developed. At the age of thirteen, Tanner decided to become an artist when he saw a painter in Fairmount Park near his home. Initially self taught, Tanner began to draw constantly in his free time and also tried to observe other artists' work in art galleries in Philadelphia. In 1879, Tanner enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and studied under Thomas Eakins, remaining a student there until 1885.
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In 1886, Tanner opened his own studio in Philadelphia. After moving to Atlanta and failing in an attempt to open a photography studio, Tanner taught drawing at Clark University. Tanner traveled to France in 1891, where he studied under Jean-Paul Laurens at the Academie Julian and joined the American Art Students Club of Paris.
During a brief return to Philadelphia, in 1893 Tanner painted "The Banjo Lesson", a high point in his initial period of genre paintings featuring African Americans. He moved back to Paris in 1895 in an effort to escape racial discrimination in America. After returning to Paris, Tanner drew upon his religious background and turned increasingly to biblical subjects, such as "Daniel in the Lion's Den", which won honorable mention at the Paris Salon of 1896.
During World War I, Tanner worked for the Red Cross Public Information Department, at which time he also painted images from the front lines of the war.
Several of Tanner's paintings were purchased by Atlanta art collector J.J. Haverty, who founded Haverty Furniture Co. and was instrumental in establishing the High Museum of Art. Tanner's "Etaples Fisher Folk" is among several paintings from the Haverty collection now in the High Museum's permanent collection.
Tanner died in Paris, France on May 25, 1937.
Tanner is often regarded as a realist painter, focusing on accurate depictions of subjects. While his early works, such as "The Banjo Lesson" were concerned with everyday life as an African American, Tanner's later paintings focused mainly on the religious subjects for which he is now best known. It is likely that Tanner's father was a formative influence in this direction.