Tanner was born on June 21, 1859, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania , to Benjamin Tucker and Sarah Miller Tanner. Tanner's father was a college-educated teacher and minister who later became a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopalian Church. Sarah Tanner was a former slave whose mother had sent her north to Pittsburg gh through the Underground Railroad. Tanner's family moved frequently during his early years when his father was assigned to various churches and schools. In 1864 Tanner's family settled in Philadelphia where his early artistic interests were developed. At age thirteen, Tanner decided to become an artist when he saw a painter at work during a walk in Fairmount Park near his home. Throughout his teens, Tanner painted and drew constantly in his spare time and tried to look at art as much as possible in Philadelphia art galleries.Henry's first artistic efforts were marine scenes and animals painted at the Philadelphia Zoo. In 1878 he painted several Adirondack landscapes while convalescing from an illness. In 1879, Tanner enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he joined Thomas Eakins's coterie. Tanner moved to Atlanta in 1889 in an unsuccessful attempt to support himself as an artist and instructor among prosperous middle class African-Americans. Bishop and Mrs. Joseph C. Hartzell arranged for Tanner's first solo exhibition, the proceeds from which enabled the struggling artist to move to Paris in 1891.
Henry moved to Paris France to escape the racial prejudice that was an impediment to the aspirations and ambitions of all African Americans in that era. Paris was a welcome escape for Tanner; within French art circles the issue of race mattered little. Tanner acclimated quickly to Parisian life.In Paris, Tanner was introduced to many new artworks that would affect the way in which he painted. At the Louvre, Tanner encountered and studied the works of Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste Chardin and Louis Le Nain. These artists had painted scenes of ordinary people in their environment and the effect in Tanner’s work is noticeable. One example is the striking similarity between Tanner’s “The Young Sabot Maker” (1895) and Courbet’s “The Stonebreakers” (1850). Both paintings explore the theme of apprenticeship and menial labor. Henry Tanner studied under renowned artists such as Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens. With their guidance Tanner began to make a name for himself. His painting entitled “Daniel in the Lions Den”, was accepted into the 1896 Salon. Later that year he painted “The Resurrection of Lazarus”. The critical praise for this piece solidified Tanner’s position in the artistic elite and heralded the future direction of his paintings, to mostly biblical themes. This painting would eventually lead to Tanner's first trip to the Middle East. In 1893 on a short return visit to the United States, Tanner painted his most famous work, The Banjo Lesson. The painting shows an elderly black man teaching what is assumed to be his grandson how to play the banjo. This deceptively simple-looking work explores several important themes. Blacks had long been stereotyped as entertainers in American culture, and the image of a black man playing the banjo appears throughout American art of the late 19th century. Tanner worked against the familiar stereotype of minstrel banjo players by producing a sensitive reinterpretation. Instead of a generalization the painting portrays a specific moment of human interaction. The two characters concentrate intently on the task before them. They seem to be oblivious to the rest of the world which magnifies the sense of real contact and cooperation. Skillfully painted portraits of the individuals make it obvious that these are real people and not types. In addition to being a meaningful exploration of human qualities, the piece is masterfully painted. Tanner undertakes the difficult endeavor of two separate and varying light sources. A natural white, blue glow from outside enters from the left while the warm light from a fireplace is apparent on the right. The figures are illuminated where the two light sources meet; some have hypothesized this as a manifestation of Tanner’s situation in transition between two worlds, his American past and his newfound home in France Henry O. Tanner continued to paint until the mid 1930s. He died in Paris, France on May 25, 1937.