Henry Ossawa Tanner used his Swedish-born wife Jessie and their son Jesse as models for the Virgin and Christ, giving the work a double resonance as both a meditative biblical scene and a tender family portrait. The first African American artist to obtain international acclaim, Tanner is the last great exponent of religious painting in European and American art. The son of an African Methodist Episcopal minister, Tanner studied with Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before pursuing a career in Paris, where the professional and societal obstacles facing people of color were not as severe as in 19th- and early 20th-century America. Tanner's religious paintings were popular and critical successes at the Salon and with collectors on two continents.
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