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From the Archives – Renowned Artist Captures Red Cross Work in World War I

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A unique record of Red Cross involvement in World War I is captured in the paintings of Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), the foremost African-American artist of his generation.

Tanner, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on June 21, 1859, was the eldest of nine children. He spent most of his childhood in Philadelphia where he attended the Robert Vaux School, one of a few African-American schools offering a liberal arts curriculum.

In 1880, Tanner enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts studying under Thomas Eakins, a famous teacher who had a profound impact on Tanner’s life and work.

His artistic achievements eventually brought him to Europe. While living in France during World War I, Tanner began painting for the Red Cross. At the request of the American Red Cross Bureau of Photography, he received permission from the Army’s Photographic Censorship Office to “make sketches of A.R.C. work in the region of Neufchâteau” with the requirement that they be “exclusively of Red Cross activities and subjects.”

Many of Tanner’s images from the front lines featured African-American troops during the war. The three works shown below are part of the Red Cross collection.

Canteen at the Front. (Shows an interior of the Red Cross Canteen.) Oil on canvas 1918
Canteen at the Front. (Shows an interior of the Red Cross Canteen.) Oil on canvas 1918.

 

Intersection of Roads at Neufchateau (Shows WWI soldiers walking around in the evening in front of the Red Cross Canteen building.) Oil on canvas 1918
Intersection of Roads at Neufchateau (Shows WWI soldiers walking around in the evening in front of the Red Cross Canteen building.) Oil on canvas 1918.

 

ARC Canteen, Tour, France (Shows the exterior of the Red Cross rest home for enlisted men.) Oil on canvas 1918
ARC Canteen, Tour, France (Shows the exterior of the Red Cross rest home for enlisted men.) Oil on canvas 1918.

For the rest of his life, Tanner received praise and honors for his work.

Left, Tanner in uniform as a Lieutenant on the French Front from 1914 to 1918. Right, Knight of Legion of Honor medal.
Left, Tanner in uniform as a lieutenant on the French Front from 1914 to 1918. Right, Knight of Legion of Honor medal.

A solo exhibition of Tanner’s work at the Smithsonian in the late 1960s and a 1991 Philadelphia Museum of Art touring retrospective began a new wave of interest in his life and work. In 1996 the White House acquired Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City, making Tanner the first African-American artist to be included in its permanent collection.

From 1914 to 1918, Europe endured the horrors of The Great War, now known as World War I. In recognition of the 100th anniversary of the conflict, From the Archives will feature a series of articles on Red Cross involvement in the war.

Learn more about Red Cross history on redcross.orgFollow Nicholas Lemesh on Twitter, @NickLemesh.

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  1. Makes me want to see these paintings in real life. Beautiful paintings…beautiful story. thanks Nick.

  2. Henry Ossawa Tanner was a remarkable artist that I’m happy to be leaning about. His beautiful paintings of light are important historical records of the A.R.C. and those who served our country.

  3. June is the 100th anniversary of the arrival of American troops in St. Parize le Chatel/Moiry/Mars-sur-Allier, France to build the gigantic (10,000+ beds) U.S. military hospital at Mars-sur-Allier. The local people treasure their history and treasure the arrival of American soldiers, who they remember to this day as their protectors from invading Germans. They think that the Red Cross played a significant role in and around the hospital.

    They are planning a big commemoration in June and want to know if their could be Red Cross representation and participation in the commemoration. How can I help them find out the answer?

    (I am participating in the celebration to honor my father, who was one of three American soldiers who oversaw the building of the hospital.)