Summary: Tanner's Two Disciples at the Tomb
An introduction to Tanner's artistic career and strong Christian beliefs. Explore Tanner's very human depiction of a religious subject taken from the Gospel of Saint John.

Book: Impressionism and Post-Impressionism
Art Institute of Chicago. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in The Art Institute of Chicago. Art Institute of Chicago, 2000, p. 147.

The reverent mood of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Two Disciples at the Tomb testifies to the painter’s deeply held Christian beliefs. The son of a prominent minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Tanner regarded his faith as central to his racial identity. Themes of salvation and resurrection held a particular poignancy for African Americans of Tanner’s generation; while his father was a second-generation freedman, his mother had been born into slavery. Inspired by a passage from the Gospel of Saint John, Two Disciples at the Tomb depicts Peter and John as they view evidence of Christ’s ascent into heaven: the empty tomb and a discarded linen shroud. By emphasizing the deeply personal nature of each man’s response to the miraculous event, Tanner gave the religious subject a genuine human dimension, while at the same time presenting a reassuring allegory of promised redemption.

As a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, in the 1880s, Tanner emulated the forceful Realism practiced by his teacher Thomas Eakins. His encounters with racial prejudice prompted him to leave the United States, and in 1891 he traveled to Paris to complete his education. There, Tanner’s race proved to be less an obstacle to his success than it had been at home, and, although he never relinquished his American citizenship, he lived the rest of his life in France. By 1897, when he took a brief tour to Egypt and Palestine, Tanner had established an international reputation for his biblical imagery, prompting an American critic to hail him as the "Poet Painter of the Holy Land."