By Francisco Rivera
Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting The Disciples See Christ Walking On the Water is somewhat unusual as far as art history is concerned. At first glance, it has all the qualities of a typical Impressionist work: visible brush strokes, an outdoor setting, pastel colors, a focus on light, and a noticeable degree of abstraction. It’s when the scene is brought into consideration that the work becomes more unique. The painting depicts the famous biblical story of Jesus walking on water in the Sea of Galilee, which isn’t frequently shown in religious art. What makes this especially striking is that religious scenes were almost specifically excluded by the Impressionist style. Also, the piece was completed in 1907, more than 30 years after the last Impressionist exhibition; one could even argue that the painting is stylistically anachronistic. With these factors in mind, let’s take a closer look at what makes this work special and powerful.
What stands out most about this painting (to me, at least) is the combination of the Impressionist style with the religious subject matter. Given the movement’s beginnings, religious scenes were not often painted. Impressionism was a reaction, some would say an artistic revolution, to the principles of style enforced by the Salon de Paris in the 1870s. Classical art until that point had strongly favored religious and historical scenes, so Impressionism moved in the opposite direction, not only through the artistic techniques it developed, but also with the stories within the paintings. The hallmarks of Impressionist art became its genre scenes, as well as those painted en plein air. Tanner’s work, however, draws influence from both classic and modern art. Religion takes center stage, but its treatment is decidedly experimental. This marriage of scene and form is what makes The Disciples unique: it bridges two almost disparate art worlds in a way that both conforms to and deviates from each.
Tanner adheres strongly to the biblical narrative in his painting. In the Gospel, the story of Jesus walking on the water is framed as a miracle of faith. It’s also a shining moment for Peter, who is arguably one of the more important apostles- he is considered to be the first Pope, and his dedication to Jesus is highlighted multiple times throughout the biblical narrative. As Peter sees Jesus walking on the water, he actually steps out onto the Sea of Galilee himself, and even manages to take a few steps on the water. It’s only when Peter looks down and realizes what’s going on, becoming distracted from his faith in Jesus, that he starts to drown. Tanner’s Disciples depicts what must have been a very loaded moment in this story. A figure we can only assume to be Peter is shown taking his first step onto the water, only an instance before the miracle begins. Thus, this painting captures that climactic miraculous moment and also Peter’s trust in Jesus, a trust so intense it’s raised to the level of faith. Also curious is the angle from which this story is being told: it almost feels like we’re seeing events play out from the perspective of a bystander who simply happens to be on the shore. In this sense, the mystery of the miracle is conserved.
Finally, the painting’s style is notable. Tanner was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he studied under Thomas Eakins in 1879 and became classically trained. It was well within Tanner’s abilities to infuse his art with a more realistic quality; one need look no further than his 1898 Annunciation for proof of this. But, in The Disciples, the more abstracted Impressionist style captures the essence of the moment with more impact than a naturalistic representation could. Looking towards the top left of the composition, the figure that could only be Jesus is reduced to a light blue oval. It’s hardly, if at all, humanoid, and yet given the name of the painting, a viewer is able to understand what is going on. A more realistic rendering would have taken away the mystery and divinity of this biblical moment. In referring to the figure of Jesus as nothing more than a vague shape, Tanner sacrificed the capture of realism to attain the capture of ineffability, and the same could be said for the painting as a whole.