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  • Writer's pictureValerie Harris

"The Preeminent Negro Artist..."

While still in her teens, Laura Wheeler determined to leave Hartford for study at the

Eakins' Portrait of Henry O. Tanner at
Portrait of Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916)

Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, believing that if she were to have a chance at success, it would have its genesis there.

The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, housed in its grand and colorful Gothic revival-styled building on Philadelphia's Broad Street, was at that time the most prestigious institution of its kind in terms of faculty, awards, nationally reviewed exhibitions, and internationally recognized alumni. Associated with the Academy were some of the most prominent working artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the painters William Merritt Chase and Thomas Eakins; the illustrator,  Maxfield Parrish; and Philadelphia's leading lady of portraiture, Cecilia Beaux. These august persons enjoyed the enviable careers that Laura envisioned for herself. She was not at all enamored of the ideal of the struggling artist, the bohemian. She could not afford to be bohemian; there was nothing in the values or associations of her upbringing that would have prepared her, psychologically, to adapt a bohemian lifestyle in any but a remote and very temporary way. No, Laura Wheeler wanted to be, needed to be, a successful artist, one who could, at the very least, support herself in the manner in which she was raised. To do so, she believed, she would need to affiliate with the best.

The venerable Pennsylvania Academy boasted a tradition going back more than two hundred years and upheld the art of portraiture, for which Laura had already developed an affinity. Most impressively, from the Academy had sprung, for Laura Wheeler, a genuine hero, one whose accomplishments would inspire her throughout her life and in whose footsteps she would seek to follow: the internationally renowned Negro painter,

Henry Ossawa Tanner.

Early newspaper article on the success of Henry O. Tanner at
Tanner: The Negro Who Leads His Race in Art

The success of Henry O. Tanner in the early part of the twentieth century was unprecedented among African American artists. At a time when there were no Negro art associations where later generations of black artists would find encouragement and support, Tanner gained visibility and success without them, competing with mainstream artists for patronage, inclusion in important exhibitions, and prestigious awards, despite the barriers of individual racial prejudices and institutionalized segregation.

The Pittsburg-born, Philadelphia-raised son of a prominent bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal church, Tanner had enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in 1879, studying until 1882 under the controversial realist, Thomas Eakins, who would later paint Tanner’s portrait.  Relocating to France in 1891, Tanner began exhibiting at the famed annual Paris Salons in 1895 and by the following year had won an Honorable Mention.

In 1897, Tanner was awarded the third class medal by the Salon for his biblical painting, “ The Raising of Lazarus.” When the French government purchased the work for the Luxembourg Gallery, Tanner’s reputation was established. From then on, he was regularly cited in both the American and European art publications of the day. But, when four of his paintings were reproduced successively in the September, October, November and December 1902 issues of the Ladies Home Journal-- a magazine found in most middle class homes as a sign of gentility and taste-- Tanner became one of the most widely recognized names in American artist.

Newspaper headlines like "Negro Artist Wins Prize" or "Art Prize Won by Negro," while undoubtedly frustrating to Tanner himself, were a source of pride and motivation to emerging black artists and aspirants like Laura Wheeler.

© 2023-2026 Valerie Harris.


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