by David Neff
...The kerfuffle over Exodus got me thinking about the biblical paintings by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937). Tanner was the first African American painter to receive international acclaim and a pioneer in using Middle Eastern models for biblical figures. Tanner came from an illustrious family. His father was a leading bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and editor of the church’s paper, the most widely circulated African American publication at the time. Henry’s sister was the first woman (black or white) to practice medicine in Alabama, and Henry studied at both the prestigious Philadelphia Academy of Art and the Académie Julian in Paris. Many of his paintings were exhibited at the Paris Salon.
Tanner wanted to put us, the viewers, in the frame, for those stories are addressed to us and are about us. Though Tanner sometimes painted a dark (though not African) Jesus—and though he settled in France to escape American racism—he was not on a race mission. His mission was to universalize the biblical message: “My efforts have 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.” Believing that Bible stories illuminate the universal human experience and offer an encounter with the living God, Tanner wanted to put us, the viewers, in the frame, for those stories are addressed to us and are about us...