American Paintings and Sculpture
Artist: Henry Ossawa Tanner, American, 1859–1937

Spinning By Firelight–The Boyhood of George Washington Gray


Oil on canvas

46 1/2 × 66 1/2 × 1 in. (118.1 × 168.9 × 2.5 cm)
Leonard C. Hanna, Jr., Class of 1913, Fund

Seeing Henry Ossawa Tanner’s paintings at the Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, Booker T. Washington wrote,

Few people ever stopped … when looking at his pictures, to inquire whether Mr. Tanner was a Negro painter, a French painter, a German painter. They simply knew that he was able to produce … a great painting—and the matter of his color did not enter into their minds.

Raised in Philadelphia by parents who were activists for African American advancement, Tanner studied at the Pennsylvania Academy under Thomas Eakins, and the two remained lifelong friends. In 1891, to escape racial prejudice, Tanner settled permanently in Paris and soon acquired an international reputation. He returned to the United States briefly in 1893, staying as a guest at the home of the Tanner family friend and abolitionist minister, educator, and social reformer George Washington Gray. Shortly thereafter, Tanner created this vision of Gray’s Ohio boyhood.

Made in Paris, France
On view
19th century

George Washington Gray (1831–1902), Evanston, Ill., 1894; by descent in the Gray family; Arthur J. Phelan, Jr., and associates, Chevy Chase, Maryland, 1989; sold to the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn., 1996


Helen A. Cooper et al., Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery, exh. cat. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 2008), 21–22, 148–49, no. 86, ill.

Amy Kurtz Lansing, “ ‘Look Well to the Ways of the Household, and Eat Not the Bread of Idleness’: Individual, Family, and Community in Henry Ossawa Tanner’s ‘Spinning by Firelight—The Boyhood of George Washington Gray’,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (1997–98): 52, ill. back cover, fig. 1.

“Acquisitions, January 1996–December 1997,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (1997–98): 99.

Brian Baade et al., Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit, ed. Anna O. Marley, exh. cat. (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 2012), 189, fig. 23.

Note: This electronic record was created from historic documentation that does not necessarily reflect the Yale University Art Gallery’s complete or current knowledge about the object. Review and updating of such records is ongoing.