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  • Russ Ramsey

Henry Ossawa Tanner's Biblical Scenes

For this Art Wednesday we’ll look at Biblical scenes from Henry Ossawa Tanner (June 21, 1859 – May 25, 1937), the first African-American painter to receive international acclaim. Tanner is one of my favorites.

As a painter of biblical scenes, Tanner didn’t just want people to see Scripture; he wanted to show it to them. This is what artists do. He wanted to guide his viewers’ eyes through familiar narratives to curate the story, to make connections, to tell it true. Seeing the Holy Land in person enabled Tanner to move beyond imagination to first-hand familiarity. He went not as a tourist but as a student. He was a disciple of the Christ who lived, died, and was raised to life there. It was where the most significant event in history—the resurrection of Jesus—shaped the direction of his life and secured his eternal destiny.

Henry Tanner wanted to “preach with his brush.” He believed painters should “convey to your public the relevance and elevation these subjects impart to you, which is the primary cause of their choice.” In other words, he wanted Scripture to stir the souls of others in the way it stirred his. He said, “My effort has been to not only put the Biblical incident in the original setting, but at the same time give the human touch ‘which makes the whole kin’ and which ever remains the same.” Showing people biblical truth would be the way he would push back against prejudice. This would be how he would proclaim the gospel.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Flight Into Egypt 1923

Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in 1859 in Pittsburgh, the first of seven kids. His father was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination in the US.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Resurrection of Lazarus, 1896

Tanner’s mother Sarah was a former slave from Virginia who escaped north with the help of the underground railroad. In 1879, Tanner enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Good Shepherd, 1903

In America, Tanner had to navigate pervasive racism. His middle name, Ossawa, referred to Osawatomie, Kansas—the site of abolitionist John Brown’s confrontation with pro-slavery partisans in 1856.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Jesus and Nicodemus, 1899

Tanner moved to Paris, France, in 1891 to study art, and continued to live there after being accepted in French artistic circles. He wanted to develop his skills in the tradition of the European masters.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation, 1898

Tanner lived in France until his death in 1937. He focused largely on Biblical Scenes. In 1923, Tanner received France’s most distinguished art award, the Order of the Legion Honor.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water, c. 1907

That’s it for today’s Art Wednesday. I first began to learn about Tanner in the course of pulling together other Art Wednesday content. I love it when artists introduce you to their friends.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Angels Appearing before the Shepherds, c. 1910




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