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Celebrated artist a product of Philly schools

By Paul Socolar on Apr 9, 2012 12:38 PM

Henry Ossawa Tanner's Fishermen at Sea, ca. 1913, oil on canvas. From the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Jesse O. Tanner

Briefly mentioned in the catalog of Philadelphia's current blockbuster exhibit of the work of renowned African American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner is the fact that Tanner attended Roberts Vaux Consolidated School, from which he graduated in 1877.

That makes him possibly the most acclaimed visual artist ever to graduate from the Philadelphia public school system.

Tanner, who was his class valedictorian, spent eight years at Vaux, then an all-Black school that could be considered an antecedent of the current school of that name, which was built in the 1930s. Tanner went on to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under Philadelphia legend Thomas Eakins. He later moved to Paris and before the turn of the century, he had become an internationally acclaimed artist – only the second American painter to have one of his works acquired by the French government.

Some information about the schools Tanner attended is readily available. Born in Pittsburgh in 1859, he came with his family in 1868 to what is now called Society Hill. His father edited the weekly journal of the A.M.E. Church. He spent two years at the nearby Lombard Street School for Colored Students, later known as James Forten School. His family later moved to 29th and Diamond. 

Vaux, the segregated public school where he got most of his schooling, had been for a time operating in a poorly ventilated, poorly lit basement of African Zoar Methodist Episcopal Church, then at Fourth and Brown Streets.

But Vaux was transformed under the leadership of Jacob C. White, considered by some the leading Black educator in Philadelphia during that era. White was appointed principal there in 1864. Vaux grew in a decade from a one-room elementary school with just a few dozen students to become known as the city's most prestigious Black public school at the time. Along with the Quaker-supported Institute for Colored Youth, it was one of only a few institutions in the city where African Americans could attend secondary school.

In 1876, the year before Tanner graduated, Vaux was relocated from its site in a union hall at Parrish and Randolph Streets to what was then the W.D. Kelley School at 11th and Wood, and was renamed the Roberts Vaux Grammar School. Tanner delivered his valedictory speech there on the topic of compulsory education.

Besides his many other claims to fame, Tanner was the uncle of noted attorney Sadie Tanner Mosell Alexander, who now has a Philadelphia school named after her.

According to Dennis W. Creedon, the District's deputy for academic enrichment and support, his staff have been encouraging schools to take advantage of the show. Art teachers were invited to a special professional development session and viewing of the show.

The Tanner exhibit is at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts till this Sunday, April 15.

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