Tanner studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which was highly unusual for an African American at this time. He was also lucky enough to study under Thomas Eakins, who revolutionized the way that art was taught and influenced many. Robert Henri, founder of the Ashcan School, was also a student at the same time. Tanner felt the burden of post-slavery racism (his mother was a slave who had escaped through the Underground Railroad), even in the north, and decided to strike-out for France, where he spent most of his life. He continued his studies at The Louvre where the great French masters, such as Gustave Courbet, influenced his work further.