Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Tanner, Henry Ossawa - VM - James Romaine

Henry Ossawa Tanner: Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures

The Reality and Mystery of Christ’s Incarnation

by James Romaine

Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures employs a pictorial intimacy to depict Christ as both human and divine. Henry Ossawa Tanner visualizes the essence of Emanuel towards which the Advent season points.

By 1909/1910, when he created this painting, Tanner was a highly accomplished artist both in the United States and in France, his adopted country. Just as this African-American artist’s life straddled two continents, Tanner’s art unites the artistic methods of modernism and the iconography of religious belief. Motivated by a personal faith in Christ Tanner devoted much of his oeuvre to the depiction of biblical subjects. To achieve this purpose of revitalizing sacred art he was invested in the modernist aesthetic strategies of the late 19th century.

As student of Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Tanner’s art was, first of all, rooted in the Realist method. In this work Christ and Mary are dressed in Middle Eastern clothing (Tanner had made two trips to the Holy Land) in order to give the treatment of the biblical subject a greater sense of historical authenticity.

In France Tanner befriended artists from the Symbolist movement and adopted some of their technique of assigning spiritual values to particular colors. Tanner integrated these various methods of Realism and mystery into his own unique visual language that could be described as a world in a state of transfiguration. This seeming contradiction of a modernist painter of religious iconography is an aspect of Tanner’s art that scholars have still not fully come to terms with.

The directness of Tanner’s composition disguises the theological complexity of its subject. As mother and son sit together reading from a long scroll, Tanner’s painting poses a pair of questions for the viewer. Is Christ a human child learning to read? Or is Christ, as the word made flesh, instructing his mother in the meaning of the sacred scriptures? Despite the fact that this painting has sometimes been exhibited under the title Christ Learning to Read, I believe that Tanner succeeds in having it both ways. And the currently accepted title for the painting backs up this proposition.

Perhaps because the depiction of Christ reading with his mother offers the artist the opportunity to visualize his dual nature, it is a reoccurring subject across the whole history of art despite the fact that there is no account of it in the Bible. One of the most celebrated depictions of Christ and the Virgin Mary reading together is Madonna of the Book by the Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli. As discussed in a 2015 ArtWay meditation, Botticelli’s image employs a pictorial vocabulary of heavenly beauty to visualize the reciprocal love between Christ and Mary.

While there are many differences between Botticelli and Tanner’s paintings, one key contrast is the age of Christ in each painting. Botticelli depicts Christ as a baby. As such his ability to read would seem to be miraculous. While that departure from reality was a perfect fit for Botticelli’s otherworldly art, it would have been unsuitable for Tanner’s modern painting. (This is not withstanding the facts that Tanner greatly admired Botticelli’s art and there was an intense revival of interest in Botticelli’s art during Tanner’s lifetime.) In Tanner’s painting Christ appears to be around 7 years old. In fact, Tanner based this painting on a photograph of his wife, Jessie Olssen Tanner, and their son, Jesse Ossawa Tanner, reading together. While the precise date of the photograph has not been established, Jesse is thought to between 6 and 8 years old. This is an age when many children begin to read. Perhaps Tanner had actually observed his wife and son reading together and was inspired by an ordinary moment in his own domestic life to depict a sacred subject. In any case, the affection that Tanner felt for his models translated into a work of art that establishes an intimacy between the sacred subject and modern viewer.

Tanner’s employment of his wife and son as models for a painting of Mary and Christ was more than just a matter of convenience. It went to the very purpose of his art, namely an aspiration to visualize biblical subjects with artistic integrity and spiritual accessibility that would revitalize sacred art for modern viewers. Tanner was highly conscious of the challenges he faced as a modern religious artist. His sense of mission was spurred by what he perceived to be the poor state of contemporary sacred art. Tanner lamented,

It has very often seemed to me that many painters of religious subjects (in our time) seem to forget that their pictures should be as much works of art (regardless of the subject) as are other paintings with less holy subjects. To suppose that the fact of the religious painter [has] a more elevated subject than his brother artist makes it unnecessary for him to consider his picture as an artistic production… simply proves that he is less of an artist than [the painter] who gives the subject his best attention. Or for him to suppose that… a so-called religious sentiment will take the place of the qualities loved by artists, thus furnishing an excuse for giving the world an uninteresting canvas, is equally false. I believe most sincerely in a religious sentiment in religious pictures but, so far, have never seen it in a canvas which did not possess also artistic qualities.

Stressing that an image or object must first of all be a successful work of art before it can aspire to be a successful work of sacred art, Tanner’s challenge is just as urgent today as it was when he was working to invent a modern sacred art. Tanner’s oeuvre is an inspiration to every artist who seeks to visualize the eternal spiritual themes of the Bible in a visual language relevant to their own historical context.

Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures achieves the essential purpose of religious art, which is to make the sacred more immediate and accessible. In this Advent season, which is a time of anticipation amidst distractions, Henry Ossawa Tanner’s art fulfills the role that the visual arts can have in orienting the viewer’s attention on the reality and mystery of Christ’s incarnation.


Henry Ossawa Tanner: Christ and His Mother Studying the Scripturesc. 1909-1910, oil on canvas, 123.82 × 101.6 cm. Dallas Museum of Art 

Art For Advent on Seeing Art History: Art For Advent returns for a third season with a series on the art of Henry Ossawa Tanner. First Sunday of Advent: The Annunciation, 1898, Philadelphia Museum of Art To receive updates on Art For Advent, subscribe to Seeing Art History on YouTube:

Henry Ossawa Tanner is the first African American artist to obtain international acclaim. The son of an African Methodist Episcopal minister, Tanner studied with Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before pursuing a career in Paris, where the professional and societal obstacles facing people of color were not as severe as in 19th- and early 20th-century America. Tanner's religious paintings were popular and critical successes at the Salon and with collectors on two continents.

James Romaine is an Associate Professor of art history at Lander University. He is the co-founder of the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA). His books include Art as Spiritual Perception: Essays in Honor of E. John Walford (Crossway), and Behold: Christ and Christianity in African American Art (Penn State University Press).

ArtWay Visual Meditation December 3, 2017