New Acquisition by Henry Ossawa Tanner in MOA Collection
The BYU Museum of Art is excited to announce the acquisition of a new painting for the museum collection by American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, entitled At the Gates (Flight into Egypt).
Best known for his genre and religious imagery, Henry Ossawa Tanner was an African-American artist, among the first to gain an international reputation. Tanner studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts under Thomas Eakins. In 1891, Tanner left for Europe and settled in Paris, where he would remain for the rest of his life. While studying at The Académie Julian, Tanner created masterworks such as The Thankful Poor and The Banjo Lesson—sympathetic and ennobling depictions of humble African-Americans. He also created his first significant religious subjects, which earned him great acclaim and patronage. Tanner subsequently traveled to the Holy Land, seeking greater inspiration for his religious works. In 1923 the French government awarded the artist the Legion of Honor, and in 1927 Tanner became the first African-American artist to be elected into the National Academy of Design.
Tanner’s biblical works reflected his own devout religiosity. Tanner’s father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, was a minister and later Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal church, and instilled the artist with a strong religious foundation early in life. Tanner was described by his family as something of a mystic, one who believed in the reality of personal religious experience and revelation. This sense of the spiritual in the everyday and of the mystical presence of Christ became a central feature of his biblical depictions.
Tanner’s early, realist style shifts in the early 1900s towards a looser, more expressionist mode of painting. His works are characterized by lighter palette—blues and pinks—thick brushwork and impasto layers, and vague (almost ethereal) figures emblematic of a mystical perspective of faith.
The MOA’s newly-acquired artwork refers to the familiar theme of the Flight into Egypt, described in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2:
13 And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.
14 When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:
15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.
Tanner’s nocturne scene shows the young couple leaving their home. Mary isn’t yet seated atop the donkey. Joseph stands by, his lantern casting a glow over the scene. Other figures, a woman and a man cut off at the right-hand side, watch. The focus seems to be on Mary, who stands beyond the lone donkey, emphasizing the tentative nature of their plight. Tanner painted numerous versions of this subject. At least 15 are known to exist, many of which reside in prominent museum collections, including The Detroit Institute of Arts the Cincinnati Art Museum, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Henry Ossawa Tanner’s At the Gates (Flight into Egypt) stands as a masterwork of both the American and religious collections at the BYU Museum of Art. Tanner’s presentation of this moment—showing the Holy Family before their departure—differs from traditional representations, and invites a dialogue about their personal feelings and experience in this moment.
BYU MOA curators are currently working to incorporate this artwork into exhibitions in the near future. The museum is grateful for the donors who have made the acquisition of this beautiful painting possible.