The first African-American artist to achieve international prominence, Tanner was also one of the first African Americans to attend the Pennsylvania Academy. He studied with Thomas Eakins before his 1891 departure for Paris to train at the Académie Julian. Feeling at home in France, Tanner spent most of the rest of his life there, successfully exhibiting at the Paris Salon and eventually becoming a member of the Legion of Honor. After his early focus on landscapes and African-American genre scenes showing Eakins's influence, Tanner achieved his greatest success with evocative biblical paintings marked by dramatic, even supernatural, light effects. Tanner's father was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and his religious convictions instill these works with a contemplative quietude and profoundly human sensitivity to his subject matter.
Painted during the artist's second trip to the Holy Land (sponsored by Tanner's Philadelphia patron Rodman Wanamaker), "Nicodemus" depicts a scene from the Gospel of John in which the Pharisee and "ruler of the Jews" visits Jesus by night to receive his teachings. Tanner remarked that the six months he spent in Jerusalem lent an air of authenticity to this work, and he used local people as sitters. "Nicodemus" was shown at the Academy's 1899 annual, where it was awarded the Lippincott Prize for the best figurative work and purchased for the collection.