Completed in 1927, the year that Henry Ossawa Tanner was elected a full academician in the National Academy of Design, Nicodemus Before Christ is a powerful masterwork that is exemplary of the distinctive, personal style of the artist's finest paintings. The monumental painting triumphantly combines two major leitmotifs of Tanner's oeuvre: religious subjects and nocturnal scenes, and is representative of the artist at the height of his abilities.
Tanner's father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, was a minister and later, Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal church, who instilled the artist with a strong religious foundation early in life. While Tanner remained devote throughout his life, it was not until the mid-1890s, while living in Europe, that he began to incorporate religious subjects into his works to great acclaim. His first ventures into this genre were Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (circa 1894, Du Sable Museum of African American History, Chicago, Illinois) and Daniel in the Lion's Den (1895, location unknown). In 1896, Tanner painted The Resurrection of Lazarus (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), the tremendous success of which instilled Tanner, "with hero status. He was the first African-American artist to achieve international acclaim and was among only a handful ofAmerican artists of any race to reach this level by the late nineteenth century." (D.F. Mosby, Across Continents and Cultures: The Art and Life of Henry Ossawa Tanner, Kansas City, Kansas, 1995, p. 41) For the remainder of his career, religious subjects would occupy an important position in Tanner's oeuvre and account for many of the finest works of his career.
Tanner began experimenting with nocturnes on an 1897 trip to visit his family in Kansas City. In Nicodemus Before Christ, the artist integrates his interests in these themes into a commanding, spiritual composition. The subject of Christ and Nicodemus was particularly important to the artist as it appealed to both his religious and racial concerns. According to Dewey F. Mosby, "The subject touches on the artist's favored theme of rebirth, although here he reverses his age-instructing-youth motif. According to the book of John, Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, came to Jesus by night to ask him questions. Jesus said to him, 'except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.' The artist's father considered Nicodemus's visit to be one of three notable incidents of the second stage of Jesus's public ministry. The image of the rabbi coming to Jesus by night provided a biblical precedent for the worship habits of African-American slaves, as well as for post-emancipation practices. Slaves were not allowed either to have formal church services or to read the Bible, and their clandestine religious activities were perforce conducted at night." (Across Continents and Cultures: The Art and Life of Henry Ossawa Tanner, p. 48)
Nicodemus Before Christ is an outdoor scene, depicting the two seated men speaking, set against a distant, vast landscape. The only source of light in the composition comes from the building to the far right of the composition. Tanner masterfully combines rich blues and greens to capture the evening atmosphere and imbue the work with an air of hushed secrecy. The highly worked surface, with its thick paint application, is characteristic of the artist's mature work and further enhances the sense that the scene is cloaked by the night. The masterfully developed figures are monumentalized while the distant landscape gives the work a sense of depth.
Tanner painted two large scale depictions of Christ and Nicodemus, the present work and Christ and Nicodemus on a Rooftop of 1899 (fig. 1). The latter was purchased by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts the year after it was painted and remains in the museum's collection. The present work was commissioned by the Richard Humphreys Foundation in 1924, though it was not completed until 1927, due to various personal tragedies that had occurred in Tanner's life during the period, including the death of his beloved wife. The commission was particularly important to Tanner as the finished painting was to hang in the Carnegie Library at the Cheyney Training School for Teachers, an African-American educational institution supported by the Foundation. He even agreed to reduce his usual price of $5000 to $3000 in order to paint a work for the school. In his March 26, 1924 letter to Tanner, telling him that the commission had been approved, Stanley R. Yarnall wrote, "I am glad to assure you of the interest with which this whole matter had been considered by our Board of Managers and our faith that the work you will produce will be a lasting inspiration to the life at Cheyney." On April 26, 1924, Tanner responded and promised that, "I shall try and give you my absolute best." Nicodemus Before Christ is a remarkable and sophisticated masterwork that fulfills this promise.
A copy of the letter commissioning the painting accompanies this lot.