In honor of Black History Month!
Henry Ossawa Tanner was the first internationally acclaimed African American artist, active at the turn of the 20th century. He became best known for the “suggested domesticity” of his religious paintings, which resulted in uniquely settled, quiet, and fundamentally human portrayals of Biblical figures. At the Gates… depicts Mary and Joseph’s escape into Egypt. The two loosely-painted figures cut lonely, inquisitive silhouettes. An almost-blinding radial light cuts through the night surrounding the figures, contrasting the shadows of Mary and Joseph’s humanity with the luminous, holy influence of the Christ Child.
Mary and Joseph’s abstracted faces invite a personal identification with this refugee family—an identification which their painter likely felt. Tanner’s mother escaped enslavement through theUnderground Railroad, and Tanner himself felt driven from America by oppressive racism,
which led him to spend most of his life as an expatriate in France. This personal history may
account for Tanner’s fascination with Mary and Joseph’s emigrant experience, as this painting is one of fifteen images Tanner created of their journey into Egypt. Despite the fear and uncertainty of these refugees, the darkness around Mary and Joseph is illuminated by the light of Christ, a faith with which Tanner himself embraced.
Student Contributor: Ellie Hinds