Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), At the Gates (Flight into Egypt), c.1926-1927, oil on panel, 26 11/16 x 19 1/16 inches. Brigham Young University Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Stanford C. Stoddard, 2019. The exhibition Of Souls and Sacraments: Symbol and Context in Christian Art is currently on display.
Best known for his genre and religious imagery, Henry Ossawa Tanner was the first Black artist to gain an international reputation. Tanner’s father was a minister and later Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church who instilled a strong religious foundation in his son. Tanner was described by his family as something of a mystic who believed in personal religious
experience and revelation. He sought the universal in his religious works, his distinctive style inviting viewers to consider spirituality more deeply.
Tanner painted at least fifteen versions of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus’ hasty departure for Egypt. Here, the young couple prepare to flee their home following the angel’s warning. The focus is on Mary, who stands behind a lone donkey, illuminated by Joseph’s lantern. Tanner utilizes a loose, expressionist mode of painting, with thick brushwork and impasto layers to depict the nocturne scene. The vague figures and dramatic lighting seem to invite us into the psychology of the moment, contemplating Mary’s thoughts and emotions as she looks into the night.