Interior of a Mosque, Cairo

Henry Ossawa Tanner (American, 1859–1937)


52.1 x 66 cm (20 1/2 x 26 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Oil on canvas

On View

Robert P. and Carol T. Henderson Gallery (Gallery 228)





Now regarded as the preeminent African American painter of the late nineteenth century, Tanner spent most of his career in Paris, a city he found more supportive of his professional ambition than any in the United States. The son of an African Methodist Episcopal bishop, he specialized in figural compositions, most often with biblical themes, exhibiting them at the Paris Salon annually from 1894 to 1914. One of these, The Raising of Lazarus (1896, Musée d’Orsay, Paris), captured the attention of Rodman Wanamaker, a Philadelphia merchant and art patron resident in Paris. Wanamaker, convinced of Tanner’s talent and believing that the artist should see firsthand the sites of the Holy Land that so inspired him, sponsored Tanner’s first trip to the Near East; he followed a long tradition established by painters of the Orientalist movement who took the peoples and places of Turkey, North Africa, and the Middle East as their subjects.
Tanner left Paris in January 1897, traveling south through France by train to Marseilles, and then by ship to Cairo. From Egypt, he went to Port Said, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Jericho, and the Dead Sea, returning to Alexandria and sailing back to Europe through Naples. He spent just over two months in the Middle East, but the sketches he made during this trip would inform his religious paintings for years to come. During the time he spent in Cairo, Tanner visited numerous mosques, many as yet unidentified: as Tanner put it, “the number of mosques is so great that to remember the names in one day or so is next to impossible.”[1] Despite Tanner’s uncertainty, the location of Interior of a Mosque, Cairo has been identified as the madrasa of Sultan Qaitbey, a Mamluk-dynasty complex originally containing a mosque, a school, and a mausoleum, built between 1472 and 1475.

Regarded as one of the masterpieces of Islamic architecture in Cairo, the mosque of Qaitbey is famous for its colored and cut marble, geometric patterning, and decorative tile. Tanner shows it as a timeless place of faith and mystery. He depicts the eastern end of the interior, where the mihrab facing Mecca is located, choosing an angled view that shows the curved arches and elaborate marble patterning on two sides of the building. The mihrab wall is decorated with stained glass windows that dapple the floor with light; an elaborately carved wooden minbar (pulpit or lectern) is visible at the left side of the composition. Tanner’s mosque is not merely an architectural monument, however, but an active house of worship: two robed figures face east, presumably engaged in their devotions. For Tanner, pictures were completed not only with paints, but also with spiritual content.

Tanner inscribed this painting with his name and the place it was made, Cairo, and brought it back with him to France. There he apparently gave it to Charles Hovey Pepper [], a Boston painter who had been one of Tanner’s classmates at the Académie Julian, an art school in Paris that was particularly popular with Americans.

1. Tanner, travel diary, January 20, 1897, quoted in Marcia M. Mathews, Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 83.

Erica E. Hirshler


Signed and dated


1897, the artist; probably given by the artist to Charles Hovey Pepper, Philadelphia. October 27, 2003, William Bunch Auctions, Chadds Ford, Penn., lot 703 A. By 2004, with Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York; 2005, sold by the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery to the MFA. (Accession Date: February 23, 2005)

Credit Line

Museum purchase with funds by exchange from The Hayden Collection—Charles Henry Hayden Fund, Bequest of Kathleen Rothe, Bequest of Barbara Brooks Walker, and Gift of Mrs. Richard Storey in memory of Mrs. Bayard Thayer