A keen reader might identify a recurring biblical scenario: a spirited, sometimes Spirit-led, flight for life. Lot to Zoar, Moses to Midian, the enslaved to the wilderness, David to the caves, Elijah to the desert … Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to Egypt (Matthew 2:13–15).
A century ago, that plight of the Holy Family—running from royal rage—captured the imagination of Impressionist-era painter Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937). Over 35 years, he rendered the scene at least 15 times. Young Tanner, the son of a prominent Philadelphia African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denominational editor, then bishop, studied for several years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. A classmate later admitted, “One night his easel was carried out into the middle of Broad Street and, though not painfully crucified, he was firmly tied to it and left there.” 1
Tanner never recorded this incident, or others, but, by his mid-30s, he relocated to a less prejudicial France. Formerly focused on marine and animal genres, in Europe he found wider acceptance, expanded markets, and soon a new subject niche. His acclaimed 1895 Daniel in the Lions’ Den (big cats by then a specialty) launched his career as a biblical artist. “There was race in it,” one art critic said of the menaced prophet. 2 Resurrection of Lazarus followed—and then two trips to the Holy Land, which captured his imagination.
Tanner turned his back on au courant sentimentalized and sanctimonious portrayals of biblical scenes (for him, hardly a halo). Unlike many Orientalists of the day, he drew what he observed in the landscape of Palestine and northern Africa—but with an Impressionistic not photographic eye. A New York Times critic noted, “in many instances … the character of the landscape itself is felt to be the important matter.” 3 As for characters, he went for a personal touch. Tanner is quoted as saying that he aimed “to present the simple domestic side of biblical personages.” 4
Alongside a preoccupation with the Good Shepherd (at least 15 versions), Tanner repeatedly turned to Christmas and Easter themes. His frequently reprinted Annunciation shows Mary before she’s internalized the command to “fear not.” His Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds—envisioned as if from a hovering drone—features see-through spirits. Mary, alone or en famille, is a serious ponderer; two complementary versions of boy Jesus cheek to cheek with his mother (Christ Learning to Read and Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures) suggest she’s his tutor.
As for his fascination with the Holy Family’s night flight from Herod, first painted in 1899, Tanner later cited his own
ride one stormy Christmas night to Bethlehem. Dark clouds swept the moonlit skies and it took little imagination to close one’s eyes to the flight of time and see in those hurrying travelers the crowds that hurried Bethlehemward on the memorable night of the Nativity, or to transpose the scene and see in each hurrying group a “Flight into Egypt.” 5
A good number of his “Flights” portray the family trio traveling from canvas right to left, as if from east to west, and emphasize the rugged landscape—as he aged, increasingly rendered in blues and greens rather than earthy brown tones. Tanner’s son, Jesse, eventually proposed that the cool tones “were furnished because of their spiritual comfort; they were the colors of heaven above.” 6 One can envision moonlit journeys across unmarked borders—any family, any generation, fleeing in hope and fear to spare a life.
In 1913, Tanner noted: “I choose my religious subjects not primarily because I believe they will interest people … I have chosen the character of my art because it conveys my message and tells what I want to tell to my own generation and leave to the future.” 7
About the Author
Evelyn Bence, formerly an editor of religion at Doubleday, is author of the award-winning novel Mary’s Journal, the supposed diary of Mary, mother of Jesus. She has written a series of ekphrasis poems—reflections on Henry Tanner paintings—as well as other published art meditations published.
1 Joseph Pennell, The Adventures of an Illustrator (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1925), p. 54.
2 William S. Scarborough, “Henry Ossian Tanner,” Southern Workman 31.12 (December 1902), p. 666. Location of the original 1895 Daniel in the Lions’ Den is unknown. The later, linked painting is very similar.
3 New York Times, December 19, 1908.
4 F.J. Campbell, “Henry O. Tanner’s Biblical Pictures,” Fine Arts Journal 25.3 (March 1911), p. 165.
5 Henry Ossawa Tanner, “The Story of an Artist’s Life, Part 2,” The World’s Work 18.3 (July 1909), p. 11,774.
6 Jesse O. Tanner, biographical notes on Henry Ossawa Tanner, late 1930s, Tanner Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
7 Henry Tanner, quoted in The Advance 20 (March 1913), p. 14.
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