Habits of Mind

  • Observe Details
  • Develop Grit

The ‘Bond’ Between Science and Art

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.




Born in Pittsburgh, Henry Ossawa Tanner was of English, African, and Indian ancestry. His middle name was derived from Osawatomie, the Kansas town in which the white abolitionist John Brown had launched his antislavery campaign in 1856. Tanner enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1879 and studied with the great Thomas Eakins (1844–1916). However, he knew that as an African-American artist he would never be fully accepted in America. In 1891 Tanner moved to Paris, which offered a receptive social and artistic climate, remaining until his death in 1937. He resisted periodic attempts by African-American leaders to enlist him as a spokesman, preferring to concentrate on artistic rather than political issues. Tanner believed that he could not fulfill his artistic aspirations while fighting racial discrimination. Nonetheless, his artistic commitment, spiritual motivation, and international acclaim have inspired generations of African-American artists.

Tanner’s father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, was a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and an activist for equal rights. His religious upbringing greatly influenced Henry Tanner’s later works. Matthew 2:12–14, the biblical passage that tells how Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escaped from King Herod, provided the inspiration for Flight into Egypt. Images of this subject were popular among African-Americans escaping slavery, offering a parallel for their own issues of personal freedom, escape from persecution, and the migration of African-Americans from the South to the North. In fact, Tanner’s Holy Family might be figures traveling the Underground Railroad; they do not exhibit the overt religious symbolism of more traditional Flight into Egypt paintings, such as golden halos and angels flying overhead. Tanner explained that he wanted “not only to put the biblical incident in the original setting but at the same time to give the human touch which makes the whole world kin and whichever remains the same.”

Tanner developed a highly personal style based on direct observation and his own unique vision. In his later paintings, he introduced freer brushwork and used Impressionist colors, which he felt “lifted up the color scheme.” Flight into Egypt displays his “Tanner blues,” complex layers of glazes, and flat decorative surfaces. The artist limited his palette to monochromatic hues, cast the scene in shadowy light, and used layers of glazes and scumbling. Achieved by painting thin layers of opaque light color over dark colors, scumbling gives a broken color effect. The colors mix optically rather than on the palette, and the result is a shimmery, opalescent hue similar to mother-of-pearl.

The Civil War ended in 1865, solidifying the abolishment of slavery in America, but the memory lingered. Reconstruction, the period of readjustment following the war, officially ended in 1877, when all federal troops were withdrawn from the South. However, the result of Reconstruction was not the reorganization of social and economic structure in the South that had been hoped for by many activists. Instead, the period saw the rise of a one-party “solid South” and increased racial bitterness. Continued segregation and economic factors led to what became known as the Great Migration, when African-Americans left their Southern farms in search of urban jobs. Between 1915 and 1920, as many as one million African-Americans moved to northern cities.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider