Nicodemus and Jesus on a Rooftop | Art for A Lent 2

John 3:1-2a Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night…

Nicodemus and Jesus on a Rooftop
Tanner, Henry Ossawa, 1859-1937
Nicodemus and Jesus on a Rooftop
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Philadelphia, PA
Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Nicodemus and Jesus on a Rooftop, Oil on Canvas, 1899, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1859-1937

When America was a young nation, it looked to Europe for its fine arts and a person pursuing a career in painting went there to study. In the eighteenth century, Benjamin West studied in Italy, settled in London, and became the president of the Royal Academy of Art. In the nineteenth century, artist James Whistler also worked in England. Lengthy stays in Europe became almost a rite of passage in the twentieth century as American artists sought to absorb European culture and become part of revolutionary developments. When poet and art collector, Gertrude Stein was asked why she left Oakland, California, she said, “Because there was no there, there.” The hub of activity in the arts was Paris.

In addition to studying art, there were other factors that would lead a person to Paris. Opportunities for women and people of color in the arts were limited in America. Mary Cassatt went to Paris in the nineteenth century and remained there for a successful career. Henry Tanner, an African American, also made Paris his home.

Tanner’s father, a Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, moved his family from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Philadelphia where his children would have better schools. An eduction in the liberal arts led Henry to develop a love of painting and he enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His instructor, Thomas Eakins, was one of America’s finest artists but after a visit to France in 1891, Tanner decided to leave America and live in Paris. At the time Tanner arrived in Paris, the art world was undergoing a revolution. Many of the Impressionists were still living. The Post-Impressionists and the Synbolists opened the way for developments beyond Impressionism and their work would influence painters throughout the twentieth century. Tanner learned from these developments and the mood established by the colors, spatial relationships, shadows, and figures in his “Nicodemus and Jesus on a Rooftop (shown here) indicates he was well aware of modernist trends. Tanner was mindful of the importance of his subject and created a sense that a serious conversation was taking place in a private, almost secret, meeting. While planning his composition, it is likely that Tanner recalled his father’s stories of how his ancestors in slavery had to worship in secret. The time Jesus and Nicodemus met was at night but Tanner chose to interpret it as a rooftop meeting at dusk. The sky is a blue-gray an the colors are muted. [In the Near and Middle East, rooftops were places to meet and socialize in the evening. During summer nights it was a place to sleep.]

Nicodemus, a ruler and a Pharisee, came to learn more about Jesus’ message. We see him as a white-bearded man sitting at the left with his hands on his knees. He is leaning forward slightly as though he is trying to comprehend what Jesus is saying; responses to his questions bring further questions from him. Jesus is sitting across from him on a parapet a few feet away. His eyes are fixed on Nicodemus as he gestures while he speaks. Tanner’s painting gives us a sense that we are witnessing this meeting. Unlike Medieval times when a biblical event was often given a local setting, Tanner’s setting is in the Near East as it might have been in the time of Jesus; turn of the century Paris is not the setting for this painting.

Hovak Najarian © 2014

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