Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures


Henry Ossawa Tanner ( American, 1859 - 1937 )

c. 1908
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General Description

Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures presents a dramatic, yet intimate scene. The figures of Christ and Mary clasp each other tenderly as they each hold the scroll from which they read, their physical bond an outward acknowledgment of their spiritual unity. Henry Ossawa Tanner's lush, densely painted surface is restricted to shades of blue, purple, and gold, bathing the figures in a warm, golden light, a metaphor for the illumination gleaned from the scroll. His combination of the broken brushwork, Tonalist colors, and Symbolist subject matter has been compared to that of Albert Pinkham Ryder, without that artist's obsessively overworked surfaces. Thanks to existing photographs, we know that Tanner used his wife and son as models for Mary and Jesus, giving the work a double resonance as both a meditative biblical scene and a tender family portrait.

Adapted from

Eleanor Jones Harvey, "Henry Ossawa Tanner, Christ and His Mother Studying Scriptures," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Charles Venable (New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press, 1997), 243.

Fun Facts

  • The artist declared in a 1908 interview: “In Paris . . . no one regards me curiously. I am simply ‘M. Tanner, an American artist.’"

  • The first owner of this work, Edgar J. Kaufmann, is best remembered for commissioning Frank Lloyd Wright to design his house, Falling Water (1935, Mill Run, PA). Collectors such as Kaufmann were attracted to the spirituality in Tanner's paintings.

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