Tanner, Henry Ossawa - VM - Laurel Gasque
Henry Ossawa Tanner: Nicodemus Visiting Jesus by Night
The Light Shines in the Darkness
by Laurel Gasque
Being drummed out of your art school by fellow students with an easel strapped like a cross to your back is not an auspicious way to start one’s career as an artist. However, this is what happened to Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859 – 1937), the most distinguished African American artist of the 19th century and the first African American artist to attain a reputation abroad. Further, he was also the first to portray black people with their total humanity and dignity and to face full force the indignity of the caricature of his people.
Racial discrimination did not prevent Tanner’s exceptionally tough-minded and innovative teacher at the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), from becoming one of his foremost advocates. Eakins himself is considered one of America’s most important artists. Established along the lines of esteemed European fine arts academies, PAFA, founded in 1805, is the oldest academy of arts in the United States. Eakins’ radical new methods at the academy where he taught from 1876 to1886 included the observation and drawing from live models as well as anatomy lessons with cadavers. His artwork pushed the envelope for a gritty realism that stayed clear of sensational crassness.
Although filled with doubts and anxiety from many daunting directions, especially due to his race, Tanner was determined. His Christian family heritage and his personal faith not only sustained him, but also helped to mediate grace and courage for him to go on.
His parents were remarkable, breaking all stereotypes one might expect of Black Americans in the 19th century. His mother, Sarah Miller, was a slave sent by her family from the American south to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania via the Underground Railroad. These circumstances did not prevent her from being literate and well read. Tanner’s father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was well educated and articulate. Eventually the family settled in Philadelphia where he became a bishop. It was also in Philadelphia that the young Tanner discovered art.
Today Philadelphia embraces Tanner as one of its most beloved sons, although he elected to live in France after 1891 for the rest of his life except for occasional visits to the United States. Amidst the superb collection of art at PAFA, the very institution where Tanner experienced so much hurt, stands a stunning example of his work, a gem entitled Nicodemus Visiting Jesus By Night (1899). It might well be entitled Jesus the Light of the World. It’s a rather large, striking work, not quite life size. While Nicodemus and Jesus are not associated with Advent, Tanner shows us why they should be linked in a profound example of how artists can help us understand Scripture in wider and richer ways.
Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council), is mentioned three times in the New Testament, only in the Gospel of John. The first time is in John 3:1-17, when he comes rather mysteriously by night to Jesus and draws out this proclamation from him: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’, the focus of this painting. The second time (John 7: 50 -52), is when Nicodemus confronts and questions his fellow Pharisees about arresting Jesus without adequate proof that he had broken the Law. The third time (John 19:39) we can surmise that Nicodemus has become a devoted follower of Jesus as he brings myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. This latter reference in the Gospel of John has been the one that has mainly found its way into art in the portrayal of Jesus’ Deposition from the Cross and his Entombment.
Tanner’s rendering of Nicodemus and Jesus on a rooftop at night bridges all of these passages in the Gospel of John with an amazing economy of means. It shows his close reading of Scripture and leaves us with another insightful interpretive way of looking at this gospel. Never leaving the demands for realism of his contemporary art world, Tanner shows Nicodemus seated on a rooftop at night in intense dialogue with Jesus. The setting is authentic. Tanner travelled to Palestine to study its landscape and ways in order to be true to it. Fascinatingly, in this work he has been able to reconcile everyday reality with the transcendent and let the viewer put all of this together implicitly. Where does the light in this work come from? From the stairwell below or from above, radiating from the breast of the Saviour? Or both, merging, it would seem, the everyday with the transcendent!
Tanner unites the prologue of John (‘what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.’) with Nicodemus’ deep conversation andwith Jesus’ declaration ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’ (John 8:12). It may well also allude to his death and burial. The large urn standing near Jesus could refer to his entombment as John says that Nicodemus brought a large portion of spices to anoint Jesus’ body.
This painting reminds us to humble ourselves as we consider our Saviour coming into the world. It helps us to reflect on this clever and influential person, Nicodemus, imploring Jesus for answers to his most vital questions along with his courage to do this. May we do likewise, in this season and always.
Laurel Gasque is associate editor of ArtWay and the author of Art & the Christian Mind: The Life & Work of H. R. Rookmaaker.
The biblical quotations are from the NRSV.
Exhibition Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, January 27 - April 15, 2012. (The High Museum of Art, Atlanta, June 2 - September 2, 2012; Houston Museum of Fine Arts, October 14, 2012 - January 6, 2013). The subject of this exhibition is the career and life of the artist Henry O. Tanner (1859-1937) including Tanner’s upbringing in Philadelphia in the years after the Civil War; the artist’s success as an American expatriate artist at the highest levels of the international art world at the turn of the 20th century; Tanner’s role as a leader of an artist’s colony in rural France and his unique contributions in aid of American servicemen to the Red Cross efforts in WWI France; his modernist invigoration of religious painting deeply rooted in his own faith; Tanner’s depictions of the Holy Land and North Africa interpreted through comparison with contemporary French orientalist painting and photography; and the scientific and technical innovations of the artist’s oeuvre.
ArtWay Visual Meditation December 5, 2010