top of page

Henry Ossawa Tanner – “I will preach with my brush.”

Updated: Jul 17, 2023

Romans 8:7-8

The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. 8Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

Henry Ossawa Tanner – “I will preach with my brush.”

“I am that I am” the one eternal God without end or beginning is the perfect being that all other things are derived from.

God creates and sustains everything in creation including human beings, and he created us human beings in his own image (Genesis 1:27). That means that he created us with moral and rational capacities with which to image him. Images are made to image. The meaning of being created in the image of God is that we have a destiny and a capacity to image God, to mirror God, to reflect God. We are to magnify and image our Maker in all of life, so his goodness, his beauty and his truth are mirrored in us.

But we cannot attain this by our own intelligence or hard work, we cannot even come close. Why?

SIN! Sin is endemic in you and me. To rule over it we must have the power first from the person of the Holy Spirt and the power of Christ. You cannot use your will power or use your intelligence to conquer your sin, it will always conquer you.

None of us are born hating other people. Our innate Sin Nature (1 Corinthians 2:14) makes us spiritually unable and unwilling to submit to God (Romans 8:7-8).

We are rebels, our wills are broken. Each and everyone of us has a depraved and wicked heart and we all are guilty of treason against our creator by thought, word and deed. No excuses.

So here is the crux of the matter it is our parents and our culture that teach us the Racist Hatred we see today and have witnessed in the past. Pride, selfishness, greed, jealousy is just a few of the sins that lie at the root of our Racist nature. Human institutions and the world in general, including churches tend to move toward corruption.

This injustice and frustration cannot be described in mere words nor can most of us brought up in a different ethnic/economic culture understand the fear and feelings of the people affected by Racist Hatred.

Much like Martin Luther King Henry Ossawa Tanner held a hopeful pessimism that through Christ all would repent.

Ossawa Tanner
Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner was the first African American painter to gain international acclaim largely through his religious paintings. His paintings were imbued with a deep spirituality reflecting Tanner's upbringing as a minister's son and his visits to the Holy Land. Tanner’s artistic training included a move to Paris, France, in 1891 to study where he continued to live and move in French Artistic circles. His painting entitled ‘Daniel in the Lions' Den was accepted into the 1896 Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The next year his painting The Resurrection of Lazarus won a medal at the Salon and it was subsequently purchased by the French government for the Musée de Luxembourg.

‘Daniel in the Lions' Den
‘Daniel in the Lions' Den

The Resurrection of Lazarus
The Resurrection of Lazarus

Although Tanner meet with much racism among his peers, he also received support from Christopher Shearer, a landscape painter who encouraged Tanner to believe in his own gifts. He found tutelage and friendship in painter Thomas Eakins and Thomas Hovenden, two white Pennsylvania painters who stood out among their contemporaries for sensitive depictions of black subjects, in contrast to the degrading caricatures of the time.

Race Hatred (as he called it and understood it) was not just a personal attack on another individual it was and is an affront to divine justice, to God.

“I believe the Negro blood counts and counts to my advantage - though it has caused me at times a life of great humiliation and sorrow.” wrote Henry Ossawa Tanner.

“My effort has been to not only put the Biblical incident in the original setting,” Tanner wrote, “but at the same time give the human touch ‘which makes the whole world kin’ and whichever remains the same.”

Tanner’s body of work comprised well over 100 paintings many of which currently hang in prominent collections around the world.

Tanner's Sand Dunes at Sunset for example hangs in the Green Room at the White House as part of the permanent collection.

“Race hate,” Tanner understood would not be changed by human efforts, but “who dares limit the power of the grace of God to his erring children”? Tanner made this comment in a 1935 letter to an American minister, the Reverend Lavens M. Thomas II, who had asked permission to use Tanner’s 1906 painting The Two Disciples at the Tomb in a special service for racial justice. In giving his permission he said “That you finally win the day, there will be little doubt. I only think myself fortunate if the picture will in however small degree bring the thoughts and actions of my fellow man closer to our Lord and Master.”

21 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page