Despite the East Coast’s rainy Christmas forecast, Luke’s message of Joy will bring people together from all walks of life as Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. The history of Biblical art is replete with examples of masterful interpretations surrounding the birth of Christ. Today, I’d like to introduce you to Henry Ossawa Tanner and his artwork.
Henry Ossawa Tanner
Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and became the most respected African-American artist of the nineteenth century.
Tanner studied under Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia but left without graduating. After teaching a bit in the South, he eventually received an endowment that allowed him to study abroad.
The artist eventually moved to Paris in 1891 and enjoyed the absence of racial tensions he experienced in America. Further feeding his artistic sensitivities were the artistic freedom and camaraderie he felt in France. He would later meet his wife and marry her there.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, the son of an Episcopal minister, found great comfort in his Christianity. He is quoted as saying, “I will preach with my brush.” This testimony to his deeply held religious beliefs is further illustrated in the breadth of his religiously-focused artworks. I learned about Henry Ossawa Tanner during my schooling, but when the Philadelphia Museum of Art held a retrospective of his work in 1991, I developed a renewed love for Tanner.
“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 world kin’ and which ever remains the same.” — Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1924, quoted in Hartigan, Sharing Traditions: Five Black Artists in Nineteenth-century America, 1985.
Today, I would like to introduce you to a few of his paintings that illustrate aspects of the Christmas story. I hope they bring you joy during this holiday season. Joy to you!
A Message for All Time
The Message Henry Ossawa Tanner illustrated in these and other paintings was meant to point us all to the purpose of Jesus’s birth. May joy find you this Holiday season!
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10).
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