Born in Pittsburgh to a former slave and a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937) developed into a painter of international renown. He spent most of his youth in Philadelphia, where he honed his early naturalistic style at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under the mentorship of Thomas Eakins. Like many aspiring American artists of his generation, Tanner sought further training abroad and, in 1891, enrolled in Paris's popular Académie Julian. He flourished under the stimulation of Paris's international art circles and appreciated the comparatively greater degree of racial tolerance he experienced in France. With the exception of brief trips back to the United States and travels throughout the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and England, Tanner remained in France for the rest of his life, maintaining residences in Paris and, beginning in 1904, in the hamlet of Trépied, near the fishing port of Étaples.
By the time he painted Étaples and the Canche River at Dusk around 1918, Tanner had already garnered fame for his genre paintings, Orientalist subjects, and especially for his inventive biblical paintings—many of them nocturnes—in which he conveyed the power of spiritual manifestations through dramatic lighting and emotive facial expressions. His attraction to the restricted tones and dreamy, atmospheric effects of nocturnes carried over into his landscapes, as seen in this twilight image of Étaples. Here, the distant glittering lights of the town enliven the composition and suggest a human presence despite the absence of figures. The work is characteristic of Tanner's later practice in its cool blue palette—here heightened with touches of pink and yellow—and its expressive brushwork. Even more so than his other works from this period, Étaples and the Canche River at Dusk reveals Tanner's modernist sensibilities through its high horizon, flattened picture plane, and strong diagonals. He counterbalanced this firm, underlying structure with sinuous swaths of paint that suggest the water's force as it escapes the embankment and carves a meandering path through the flats by the shore. Despite the secular subject, the painting evokes a sense of quiet awe and introspection—qualities associated with Tanner's most resonant, timeless works.