Henry Ossawa Tanner


Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1897

About the Artwork

Henry Ossawa Tanner created this portrait of his mother, Sarah Elizabeth Tanner, on a visit back to Philadelphia from his home in France. In the painting, Sarah sits in a wooden rocking chair and gazes ahead, deep in thought. A golden light illuminates the fan in her hand, and brightens her face as well as the shawl that drapes onto the floor behind her. She wears a long, navy blue dress, and her black leather shoes are just visible beneath it. She appears relaxed, her left hand gently resting against her cheek.

Sarah lived a remarkable life. When she was a child, her mother put her and her siblings on an oxcart bound for Pennsylvania to escape slavery in Virginia via the Underground Railroad. Sarah helped found one of the first societies for black women and raised seven children with her husband, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In the bottom right corner of the painting, Tanner wrote, “To my dear mother, H. O. Tanner.” This sensitive portrayal and endearing inscription capture the love and admiration the artist felt for his mother, the center of his large and distinguished family.

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