“Preaching with his brush,” Henry Ossawa Tanner Painted Warm Scenes of Christ and His Mother.

Henry Ossawa Tanner once said he, “preached with his brush.” He won awards with his religious works and was one of the first African American artists to win international fame. He took several long trips to study and paint in the Middle East, because he wanted to show real people in authentic settings.

Many children will be heading back to their studies this month so Molly and I are back to our school year schedule, too. Here’s what you can expect most months:

  1. Fun ways to learn about famous artists and their artworks.
  2. Kid-friendly devotion based on the artwork
  3. Art activity based on the artwork
  4. Newsletter with curriculum connections to the artwork and reviews of related children’s fiction and nonfiction books. And freebies!
  5. We also frequently do interviews with children’s authors. In fact, be sure to look at our Special Announcement at the end of this first school year blog.

On to our post about Henry Ossawa Tanner and his 2 beautiful paintings about Christ and his mother.

In this post you’ll:

  • Learn a little about Henry Ossawa Tanner and his 2 paintings of Christ and His Mother
  • Find helpful vocabulary
  • Discover activities to help you and your children explore and enjoy the painting
  • Be sure to check out a Special Announcement at the end about September’s blog that also has a cute photo of Molly, the Artsy Corgi

The Artist

Henry Ossawa Tanner by Thomas Eakins, public domain

Tanner grew up in Philadelphia, the son of a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. His mother, a teacher, had escaped from slavery on the Underground Railway.

When he was 13, Henry saw a landscape artist painting in a city park and decided to become an artist. He spent hours painting in the city zoo, but after high school went to work in a flour mill. The work made him so sick, he had to quit.

Tanner spent his recovery time painting, and in 1879 enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, studying under Thomas Eakins. He was the only African American student. When Henry went out on his own, though, he found it difficult to succeed because of prejudice against African American artists.

Eventually, Tanner traveled to study in Paris as so many Americans did in the late 1800s. He loved Paris and its art and found more opportunity and less discrimination. He married and made Paris his home, only returning to America for visits.


These words, which will be in bold green the first time they come up, will help you and your children talk more easily about different parts of the painting.

  • Genre art  art that shows everyday events and people
  • Portrait  a painting that focuses on one or just a few people. These may contain background landscape as in the Mona Lisa or a still life containing things that tell a little about the sitter

Tanner came to love the art of Rembrandt. He shared the Dutch artist’s faith and appreciated his portraits of Jesus and other biblical subjects. Tanner loved how Rembrandt used light and shadow to create drama, and how he showed the character of his subjects, giving dignity to everyday people and their work. Tanner continued to experiment with how to use light to create atmosphere and heighten a painting’s message.

There are 2 versions of this painting. One titled Christ and His Mother Reading the Scriptures (1909). The other called Christ Learning to Read (1910-1914). In these warm genre paintings, Mary and Jesus lean together as they both hold the scroll. Mary has her arm around her son, holding him close. Jesus is intent on his reading as his mother looks on with encouragement. From photographs, we know that Tanner’s wife and son were the models for both paintings.

Christ and His Mother Reading the Scriptures bu Henry O. Tanner, 1909, Dallas Museum of Art, public domain

Christ Learning to Read by Henry O. Tanner, 1910-1914, Des Moines Art Center, public domain

Both paintings also show the influences of Tanner’s studies in France, which led him to use lighter colors—cool blues and warm yellows and reds—and looser and more expressive brush strokes. We see the cool blues of her robes contrasted with the warm golds and tans of Jesus’ robes.

Though both paintings contrast light and shadow, the Learning to Read painting has more brilliant lights. It was painted after a trip to North Africa, where perhaps Tanner learned how to better show that bright Middle Eastern sunlight. In each painting, Christ stands out against the blue of Mary’s robes.

Activities to Help You and Your Children further Explore these 2 Beautiful Paintings

Before doing other activities, ask children to tell what’s going on in the painting and what tells them that. Ask children how Mary and Jesus feel about each other. What tells them that? Ask how they feel when they’re involved in activities with those they love. Enhance their observational and verbal skills by rephrasing words and adding new vocabulary.

Having 2 similar paintings by the same artist lends itself to a comparing and contrasting activity:

Encourage children to compare and contrast colors, shadows, items in the paintings, clothing, expressions, brightness, etc.

Ask them which painting they like better and why.

Before You Go

If you’d like more activity ideas for art, history, and nature, curriculum connections, and links to more resources, be sure to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free guide to 5 Ways Art Benefits Children’s Cognitive, Physical, Spiritual, and Social Development, with a Few Fun and Easy Activities for each Benefit

Visit my website where you’ll find free downloadable puzzles, how-to-draw pages and coloring pages for kids and an updated list of my hands-on workshops, chapels, and presentations for all ages.

Molly hopes you enjoyed learning about these two paintings of Christ and His mother and will join us next week for a devotion based on the paintings.

Special Announcement

Look what’s coming to Kathy the Picture Lady blog in late August through September!

Many wonderful new children’s books are releasing, so starting with the last post of August, I’ll be interviewing 6 children’s authors, and Molly will talk to some of the main characters in each of their new releases of picture books and board books!

Molly hopes you’ll join us to learn more about such fun characters as a mole, a rocking chair, frogs, animal daddys, pugs, and all the people and creatures that came to the manger when Jesus was born!

Here’s Molly with her special stash of books that she  hopes to add to very soon!




10 thoughts on ““Preaching with his brush,” Henry Ossawa Tanner Painted Warm Scenes of Christ and His Mother.

  1. JD Wininger

    Ms. Kathy, whenever I read your posts, the words of 1 Peter 4:10-11 ma’am. Thank you for sharing your God-given gifts with us ma’am.


    1. Kathy O'Neill Post author

      Oh, thank you, J.D. That’s just what I desire to do, and so your comment is sooo encouraging! I know you are using your gifts every day as you care for your ranch and write stories from it that bless each of your readers.


    1. Kathy O'Neill Post author

      You’re so very welcome, Barbara. I just love Tanner’s bibical paintings. So warm and realistic! Thank you for stopping by. I pray you are enjoying these last weeks of summer!


  2. Angela Jelf

    Kathy, I so enjoy all your posts! They are so interesting to read and look at, and I’m constantly learning about people and things I never knew! Thank you so much for sharing the life and work of Henry Ossawa Tanner – how amazing!


    1. Kathy O'Neill Post author

      You’re very welcome, Angela! Tanner’s work is so amazing. I love that you’re finding my posts interesting to read and look at, with new people and things to learn about! That’s just how I feel about your photos and poetry. Thank you for stopping by. I hope you’re still enjoying some great summer weather and that it’s cooled off some.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Kathy O'Neill Post author

      Thank you, Katherine. Tanner’s paintings are beautiful, and I enjoy sharing them! Thank you for your wishes for a good school year. Are you teaching at this point? I was so glad to read that you’re able to get back out to walk. and I hope you get some rain for those beautiful flowers you grow.


  3. Jeanne Takenaka

    Kathy, I’ve never heard of Henry Ossawa Tanner before (I guess that isn’t too surprising), but I always enjoy learning from what you share about artists, their work, and activities. I really enjoyed the portraits you shared here!


    1. Kathy O'Neill Post author

      Thank you Jeanne. I’m so glad you enjoy learning about these artists and their work!I like Tanner’s work, too because it’s so personal and filled with warmth. I hope you’re enjoying your summer.

      Liked by 1 person


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