Tanner, H.Ossawa - VM - Elizabeth Bristol Clayton
Second Sunday of Advent
Henry Ossawa Tanner: Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds
Tanner’s Heavenly Host
by Elizabeth Bristol Clayton
Henry Ossawa Tanner, an African-American painter whose style reimagines French impressionism, is widely known and has been described as ‘the most artistically gifted and theologically astute American painter of biblical subjects.’* He has been described as ‘mystical,’ and his works often play with subdued tones and hazy lighting, emphasizing the strangeness of divine encounters with mankind.* Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds is no exception. This piece offers an alternative perspective of the heavenly host announcing Christ’s birth, at long last, to the world. This piece was completed following a series of extended visits Tanner made to the Holy Land between 1897 and 1899, a time which significantly impacted his understanding of Middle Eastern architecture, landscape, and people.
Unlike his better known Advent piece The Annunciation (1898, Philadelphia Museum of Art), characterized by dramatic lighting and vibrant colors, here, Tanner moves towards muted, bluer tones and looser brush strokes which obscure his subject matter. Landscape and figures blend together to create a mysterious and emotionally charged effect, perhaps emphasizing the intertwining of heaven and earth on this historic night. Tanner often described his own approach to light as a quest for luminosity within each color range, an attempt at creating a kind of glow which ‘consumes the theme or subject.’*** In several of his other religious works, Tanner fashions light as a symbol of God’s presence. Here, Tanner’s range of luminescent blue tones between sky and earth generate a conception of divine presence which permeates every part of the cosmos.
To the left, several stately angelic figures hovering in mid-air can be made out by their white garments and gauzy wings. These hang apart from a small band of shepherds highlighted in the far-right corner, surrounded by a dark and craggy mountainscape outside a walled city — presumably Bethlehem. Having spent time camping in the desert of Palestine himself, Tanner would have been familiar with the mountain ranges framing his shepherd scene and perhaps would also have shared something of their feelings of exile and loneliness from his time in the wilderness. Indeed, the darkened, indiscernible landscape seems to underscore the bewildered state of a world burdened by sin and death.
Unlike most religious depictions of this Advent moment (Rembrandt, Thomas Cole) which foreground the shepherds gazing up into a sky of blinding heavenly beings, here, Tanner’s angels are foregrounded as phantasmal, shadowy figures suspended quietly over the earth, in an attitude of holy delight and anticipation. Their posture signifies a reverence for the news they bring, and a benevolence towards those they bring it to. Interestingly, it is the three shepherds huddled near their small fire which are the brightest and clearest figures in the painting. This reversal suggests the weight of divine blessing which rests upon all mankind this fateful night, the night their God came into their country of flesh. Lowly shepherds are rightly highlighted for what they will be — fellow heirs of Christ, kings, and priests to God forever (Romans 8:17; Revelation 1:6).
Tanner’s perspective shift invites us to inhabit anew this scene through the angelic gaze, considering with new wonder the beneficiaries of the Divine salvation — hovering quietly above the first recipients of their cosmic proclamation, as if holding in the joy for one final moment. This, the moment before their own annunciation, before the ‘gloria!’… heavenly host waits with bated breath. How many centuries have they waited to deliver such news? How often has heaven heaved a weary, hopeful sigh during the 400 years of silence, awaiting the ‘fullness of time?’ (Galatians 4:4). And now, at last, divine messengers bring their breathless refrain… Good news! Great joy!
“…For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:10-11
* Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, ed. James Romaine & Phoebe Wolfskill (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017).
** Jeffrey Richmond-Moll, ‘A Souvenir from the Holy Land: On Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Abraham’s Oak,’ SAAM, February 29, 2019, https://americanart.si.edu/blog/art-bites-tanners-abrahams-oak.
*** Marcus Bruce, Henry Ossawa Tanner: A Spiritual Biography (Pennsylvania: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002), 128.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds, ca. 1910, oil on canvas, 25 3/4 x 31 7/8 in. (65.3 x 81.1 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, USA.
Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937) became the first African-American artist to gain international acclaim for his works. Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When he was a few years old, Tanner moved with his family to Philadelphia, where he would spend most of his childhood. Despite the initial objections of his father who was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Tanner fell in love with the arts. He was 13 when he decided he wanted to become a painter, and throughout his teens, he painted and drew as much as he could. In 1880 Tanner enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. There, he studied under Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), widely regarded as one of America’s greatest artists, who was also an influential teacher. Eakins had a profound impact on Tanner's life and work. As well, he was his champion when he faced discrimination. In 1891 Tanner's life took a dramatic turn with a visit to Europe. In Paris, France, in particular, Tanner discovered a culture that seemed to be light years ahead of America in race relations, free from the prejudicial confines that defined his life in his native country. These were formative years as an artist where he developed his style through contact with French impressionists. Both Tanner’s parents were learned people of faith. They heavily influenced his interest in biblical themes in his art. He became known as a master of the religious genre, creating biblical paintings marked by a unique approach to light and tone. Although Tanner chose to live as an expatriate for most of his life, his ties to America and the African-American struggle for dignity and equality remained of constant concern to him, as did his friendship with Booker T. Washington. He remained in France until his death and was named chevalier of the Legion of Honour in France in 1923.
Elizabeth Bristol Clayton is an American writer, editor and photographer. She has a Master’s degree in Theology & the Arts from the University of St Andrews (Scotland). Her special areas of interest include poetry and theodicy in the Romantic and modern poets and the affective dimensions of liturgical art and practice. Apart from her studies, Elizabeth works in communications for several Christian organizations and runs her own business as a wedding photographer.
ArtWay Visual Meditation 10 December 2023