Henry Ossawa Tanner
American, 1859–1937
The Two Disciples at the Tomb
c. 1906

Oil on canvas
129.5 x 105.7 cm (51 x 41 7/8 in.)
Signed, lower left: "H.O. Tanner"
Robert A. Waller Fund, 1906.300

Henry Ossawa Tanner's Two Disciples at the Tomb depicts the discovery of Christ’s empty tomb on Easter Sunday. The event is explained in the Gospel of John in the Bible’s New Testament: "And [John] stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in." Here, John’s youthful face reflects the emptiness of the arched tomb. Next to him, bowing his head in awe, stands the bearded disciple Peter, who will later become the leader of the Christian church. A sense of spirituality is emphasized by the light radiating from the tomb.

Born on the eve of the Civil War in a house that served as an Underground Railroad station, Tanner was six years old when slavery was abolished in 1865. At the age of 21 he was the only black student admitted to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, a noted art school. There he studied with Thomas Eakins, one of America's leading painters in the late 19th century. After struggling to establish a career as an artist in Philadelphia, Tanner moved to Paris, then the art capital of the Western world. In Paris, Tanner was able to live and paint without battling the racial barriers of the United States.

Although Tanner depicted a wide range of subjects—black American genre scenes, portraits, and North African landscapes—he considered himself primarily a painter of religious subjects. Two Disciples at the Tomb became one of Tanner’s most well-known religious paintings in America, giving him at long last the kind of recognition that he had received abroad. Called "the most impressive and distinguished work of the season" in 1906, the painting competed against 350 other works to win the Harris Silver Medal at the Art Institute of Chicago. The museum purchased the painting later that year.