Born in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 1859 to Sarah, a former slave, and Benjamin, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Henry Ossawa Tanner eventually became one of the first black students at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, studying under Thomas Eakins, one of America’s foremost art instructors. Tanner moved to Europe in 1891 to escape racial prejudices he encountered in the United States.
Tanner joined the American Red Cross in France in December 1917, serving as a lieutenant in the American Red Cross Farm and Garden section. He developed and implemented a plan for convalescing soldiers to farm the lands surrounding hospitals, raising morale and producing food for the Red Cross. After this plan was a success, in 1918 Tanner applied for and was granted permission to sketch Red Cross activities, including scenes in the war zone in Neufchateau, France. During that time he served in the Office of Public Information.
Tanner’s grandniece Alexander-Minter stated in 1997 in a Washington Times article, “When Tanner came to volunteer at the Red Cross, he was 58 years old and too old to serve in the armed forces. But he had a great love of America—he was never an expatriate. He wanted to return to America, but he wanted to return to a different America than the one he left. The Red Cross symbolized him giving to his country and to France at the same time.”
In 1918, Tanner painted three special works that depict soldiers in and around the Red Cross canteens that provided them with a reprieve from battle and gave them food and coffee. The paintings are titled “Intersection of Roads, Neufchâteau”; “American Red Cross Canteen - Toul, France”; and “American Red Cross Canteen at the Front”.
In October 1919, Tanner’s paintings of the interior and exterior of Red Cross canteens were sent to American Red Cross national headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Today, Jerry DeFrancisco, president, American Red Cross Humanitarian Services, has had the good fortune to host all three original Tanner oil paintings in his office. The first oil painting to hang there (“American Red Cross Canteen at the Front”) was relocated from the office of the president and CEO of the Red Cross. Later, when DeFrancisco found out two other Tanner pieces existed, he requested to see them and they’ve been in his office since.
Red Cross Canteen, Toul (soldiers outside of rest house)
Intersection of Roads, Neufchâteau (soldiers walking around at night and light is shining on the canteen building)
American Red Cross Canteen at the Front (features interior of canteen with Red Cross worker)
“People trust the Red Cross and these pieces are a reminder of our history. Our heritage is an important part of the Red Cross, and preserving it and understanding it is essential to our mission,” said DeFrancisco.
Upon close inspection from a Smithsonian Institution expert, it is surmised that one of the paintings may also have another original artwork underneath.
In 1996, Tanner became the first African American artist to have work displayed in the White House. Many are also familiar with his painting, “The Banjo Lesson”. After the war, Tanner settled in Paris, where he painted more religious themes and later died in 1937.
Tanner’s story is one of many other African Americans who shared in the humanitarian work of the American Red Cross. From pioneering blood plasma research, to assisting victims of disasters, teaching health and safety courses, offering services to men and women in armed forces and providing leadership, African Americans have a long history with the American Red Cross.
You can find more information on the role African Americans have played in the history of the American Red Cross by visiting the online museum.