Focus On: Henry Ossawa Tanner

Focus On: Henry Ossawa Tanner

August 17, 2021 to January 2, 2022 | Level 4

This installation pairs two works by acclaimed painter Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937) that underwent a comprehensive conservation treatment and technical study by the DMA with generous support from the Art Bridges Foundation. The results contribute new insights into the practice of this important American artist. Born to a religious family, Tanner trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and initially painted scenes depicting Black life. Due to extreme racism and the professional obstacles he faced in the US, Tanner moved to Paris while in his 30s and turned his focus toward biblical scenes, a theme from which he rarely strayed for the rest of his life and that established his legacy.

FOCUS ON: Henry Ossawa Tanner


Black artist Henry Ossawa Tanner’s (1859–1937) intimate painting Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures is one of the cornerstones of the DMA’s American collection. He rendered the lush, densely painted surface using a restricted palette predominated by shades of cool, luminous blue. The color became so synonymous with him that it earned the nickname “Tanner blue.”

The artist’s wife, Jessie Olssen, an American opera singer living in Paris when they met, and their young son, Jesse, often served as his models. Two existing photographs (figs. 1 & 2) confirm they posed for him as he considered different arrangements for the DMA’s painting, and one (fig. 1) was the template. That they posed for this painting makes it simultaneously a meditative religious scene and a tender family portrait.


Find out about the treatment of The Thankful Poor and what was uncovered through the conservation process with Laura Eva Hartman, Paintings Conservator at the DMA.