Tanner has a fascinating story. He was, by most accounts, the first widely noted and celebrated black painter in the United States as well as internationally. He grew up in a lower middle-class section of Philadelphia to a father who was a pastor and a mother who was an ex-slave, gaining freedom through the underground rail-road.
He studied art in Philadelphia and then abroad, finally settling in France where racial prejudice was not a hindrance to his art. Booker T. Washington was a friend and early promoter of Tanner’s work.
He was noted for his beautiful treatments of biblical scenes. In his Annunciation, we find a very young Mary visited by the indiscernible angel Gabriel, her face aglow in his glorious light as he announces the coming of her Son, the Messiah and Savior of the world. Her youth, innocence, and prayerful submission are dramatically portrayed by Tanner in a very humble, human setting. She is not “saintly” or other-worldly as are many presentations of the annunciation. She is a real girl found on a real day in a real setting. Notice her face. It is both a vision of uncertainty and obedience. It perfectly presents the question of her heart to the angel, “But how can I be with child when I have not known a man?” Her gown and the covers of her bed are amazingly presented to us by Tanner’s skill. And imagine the playfulness he must have had in presenting her few toes to us from under the blanket.