In Focus

Tanner's Two Versions of Christ Reading the Scriptures

Henry Ossawa Tanner painted two works depicting Jesus Christ and his mother Mary engaged in a private moment of reading together. Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures (1909) came first. He revisited the subject several years later in the painting Christ Learning to Read (1910-1914, Des Moines Art Center), following a trip to North Africa. In the latter picture, brilliant color, dramatic light, and deep shadows replace the Tonalist restraint of Tanner's earlier work. In addition, his altered title shifts the emphasis from a spiritual moment between Christ and Mary to a moment from Christ's early childhood.

Like his prestigious instructor Thomas Eakins, Tanner employed a camera to create the studies on which both paintings are based. Now located at the Archives of American Art as part of the artist's papers, these photographs offer clues for the origins of these works. Two photos contain the figures translated into paint, and both bear an inscription identifying the sitters as Tanner's wife Jessie and their son Jesse.

If we accept that these photographs and hence the paintings do indeed depict Jesse Tanner, we can surmise the approximate date of execution of the first version. Jesse was born in 1902 and appears to be about seven years old in these pictures. Hence, the first version was probably done about 1909. While the two paintings are similar in composition and size, two differences suggest the sequence of their execution: the tonal brilliance of the Des Moines picture and its geometric pattern of shadows and light at the lower left. These differences are the result of two influences that entered Tanner's work after 1910: his visit to Morocco in 1910 and the complex visual patterns of the Cubists. While he steadfastly denied the legitimacy of abstract art, he was increasingly affected by it, to the point where, by the end of World War I, many of his paintings, particularly the landscapes, were hardly more representational than those of Vassily Kandinsky and other expressionistic abstractionists. Hence, the Des Moines version of Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures was probably executed second.

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.

  • Unknown, TMS curatorial remarks, DMA electronic record, n.d.

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