Examination: Tanner's Spiritual Significance in Painting
An overview of the religious painter's artistic career and a study of his renowned painting of Peter and John at Jesus's empty tomb.

Book: American Arts
Barter. J. et al. American Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago: From Colonial Times to World War I. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago and New York: Hudson Press, 1998, p. 331-33.

Henry Ossawa Tanner was one of the most renowned religious painters at the turn of the twentieth century. His achievements were recognized both in America, where he first took up painting, and in France, where he lived most of his adult life. Two Disciples at the Tomb is one of Tanner’s most celebrated paintings and shows his interest in Christian themes so important to African-Americans at the time. The work illustrates a passage from the Gospel of St. John in which the disciples Peter and John learned that Jesus’ body was no longer in its tomb and visited the site to see for themselves what had happened: "Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre. So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre. And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in."

Like many of Tanner’s paintings, the Art Institute’s canvas focuses on individual responses to the miraculous events relating to the resurrection. Upon reaching Christ’s empty tomb on Easter morning, Peter (the older, bearded man on the left) looks downward with a somber gaze, holding his entwined hands pensively across his chest. In contrast, John’s angular face and chest are bathed in a golden light that signifies the presence of Christ’s spirit and resurrection. The entrance to the tomb and the background landscape are muted and dark, emphasizing the stunning, powerful realism of the figures.

The recurrence of themes of resurrection in Tanner’s work corresponds with his sense of African-American identity. As the son of a prominent minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Tanner was familiar with the importance of Christian symbolism to African-Americans. Specifically during the late nineteenth century, the theme of resurrection was an important symbol of the new life brought by the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. W. E. B. DuBois noted in 1903, "For fifty years Negro religion . . . transformed itself with the dream of abolition. . . . Thus, when Emancipation finally came, it seemed to freedmen a literal Coming of the Lord." Under these circumstances, the discovery of Christ’s resurrection in Tanner’s painting becomes a modern allegory of the salvation of African-Americans from slavery. In a brief autobiography from 1913, Tanner himself described how he invested his paintings with meaning, making them more than mere illustrations of the Bible: "I choose religious subjects not primarily because I believe they will interest people, nor because I consider them most salable. I am very glad if they do interest the people, and certainly am glad to sell them. Yet, I have chosen the character of my art because it conveys my message and tells what I want to tell to my own generation and leave to the future."

The symbolism of Tanner’s work reveals that he was committed to the personal expression of his heritage. But he was also concerned that the art world would not accept him as an artist without regard to stereotyped notions about his race. Although well educated and possessing social status within his community, Tanner still encountered prejudice and discrimination while studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the 1880s. Seeking an environment with less racial discrimination, he completed his training in Paris at the Académie Julian in 1891, where his friend Hermann Dudley Murphy made a portrait of him during his student years. He returned to the United States in 1893 to recoup after a bout with typhoid fever and that same year presented a paper entitled The American Negro in Art at the Congress on Africa, an auxiliary congress at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Tanner returned to Paris in 1894 and subsequently made his home there because he found it more comfortable to live and work in its more tolerant atmosphere.

From his home in France, Tanner achieved his greatest successes, receiving honorable mention in the Paris Salon of 1896 and additional recognition in the Salons from 1897 to 1901. Many of Tanner’s religious paintings from this period, including Two Disciples at the Tomb, were purchased by major art institutions in the United States and abroad soon after they were completed, earning the artist international recognition for these subjects. Two Disciples at the Tomb was painted in Tanner’s Parisian studio and first exhibited in 1906 at that city’s American Art Students’ Club. Later that year it was exhibited at the Art Institute’s Annual Exhibition of American Art, where it won the Harris Prize for "the most impressive and distinguished work of art of the season," and was purchased by the museum. One critic noted it as a "quite remarkable achievement of strength, dignity, and impressiveness," and another that "after careful consideration of all this gathering of excellence [at the Chicago exhibition], the jury of award was unanimous in selecting Mr. Tanner’s picture as the best." Despite the discrimination he felt living in America, Tanner could at least be satisfied with the positive reception of his art in his home country.