Student Model: Writing About Art

Henry Ossawa Tanner's The Banjo Lesson

by Danielle LaFever


After completing an American Art class I felt compelled to see Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson in person. As an African American, many black Americans felt Tanner had a responsibility to represent black culture in his work. Tanner felt the fact that he was black shouldn't be so important to what he created; he was primarily a painter of Biblical scenes. (2, 27) With images of Tanner’s life in my mind, I packed the whole family in the car and headed to Hampton University’s African Art Exhibit. The college has several of Tanner’s paintings. There is a room just for his paintings with The Banjo Lesson, 1893, being recognized especially. When you enter the Tanner room The Banjo Lesson is positioned on the back wall so that it is the first thing you see. There is a bench in front of it. After a few minutes my husband and children moved on to other paintings so I could be alone with the object of my obsession.

I had brought a notebook to take notes. I sat down and spent those first few minutes beginning the way every artist should, observing. Though I had read quite a bit on this work, including the size of it, I was overwhelmed by how large it was. This piece, 49 x 35 ½”, is an oil on canvas and shows off Tanner’s impressionistic style. The Banjo Lesson is a beautiful demonstration of light and composition. An older man sits in a chair with a boy of about seven on his lap. Together they hold a banjo. The body of the banjo is perfectly placed to follow the rule of two thirds. Focal points are less interesting in the direct center. The grandfather’s face is gentle as he looks downward to watch the boys fingers run across the strings. The young boy is sandwiched between the legs of the aging man; his feet rest on the wooden floor. There is a homey feel in the rustic surroundings that are made of warm browns, yellows and washes of light. The scene is set in a small one room fire lit country cabin. The light comes from the fireplace, though not shown, on the viewer’s right and shines on the boy and his grandfather. Behind the couple is a table with dishes ready for a meal. In the forefront there is a kettle and pot, with a skillet off to the right. Behind his foot is the old man’s hat. Lonely in the corner, there is chair waiting for someone to enter, sit down, and join the lesson. Tanner expertly captures the realism of poor African American life. This was the first time a painter had successfully captured the way light hits the rich tones of African American skin. (2, 23) This painting is an important part of American history because of the racial atmosphere during the time it was painted and the history of this banjo.

Black families were striving to be humanized in the public eye or realm and taken beyond the prevalent images left over from slavery. When I first entered the room, I saw the relationship between a grandfather and grandson painted with love, tenderness, and patience. This painting argues against the stereotypical ideas that white America held at the time it was painted. A true image of black family tradition is evident. In that moment so much more than a music lesson passed between a grandfather and grandson. Love, patience, and history are passed in these moments. This love will be remembered and passed on through to the next generation. Thirty years after the end of slavery many still held a negative view of the black Americans. Daily, slaves had suffered violence, disease, their families being torn apart, and death. Singing in groups or while working became a common source of comfort. Africans passed their culture, hopes, dreams, and teachings thru an oral tradition of music. Music was a release from the realities of slavery, and that tradition still held decades after freedom had been achieved. (1, 16) The painting symbolizes how lessons are passed from each generation to the next. This passing of knowledge from the old to the young could have just as easily been applied to cooking, sewing, or farming. However, it is particularly powerful with the inclusion of the banjo. Tanner has reclaimed an instrument that came from Africa and yet became a stigma to black culture. (3, 522)

Just before my museum visit I went on a field trip with my daughter to Williamsburg, Virginia. At a bookstore I found a book on the history of the banjo. Already in love with Tanner’s painting I was excited to see it on the cover of the book. Knowing the banjo history gave me an even greater desire to see this painting. Tanner had brought a piece of African history and put it back into the hands of black culture. The banjo is from the Senegambia region of West Africa, and has not been truly associated with the African American population since the early 1900’s. Documents, letters and diaries chronicle the life of the banjo and place it second to the fiddle as the chosen instrument of slaves. For roughly one hundred years the banjo was played only by slaves. Many older African Americans would not openly discuss the fact that the banjo was part of their musical past. For many, the stringed music maker is not a memory to be treasured. (1, 7-8) At the end of the 1820’s, the opinion of the banjo was forever altered when it became a symbol of mockery on the minstrel stage. Blackface minstrel became a favorite form of entertainment throughout the United States. An actor by the name of Thomas Dartmouth Rice created a character, Jim Crow, to be performed as a stage act. Jim Crow was a “black buffoon” that portrayed slaves as foolish and cowardly. Dressed in “blackface” stage makeup, the white performers sang, acted, and played the banjo. The stage images served as another method to humiliate the black man and demonstrate white superiority. (1, 35-36)

Born to a free man and a slave woman, Tanner was successful despite being affected by the African Diaspora. To be a black artist in America was difficult so Tanner found a new home in Paris. Art is an artist’s way of expressing himself. Portraiture gives the artist an opportunity to capture the life before him. Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson demonstrates the gentle love of family and musical tradition passed to children in black family life. The Banjo Lesson demonstrates Tanner’s skill with color, light, and shading. He masterfully teaches how light hits African American skin. The banjo’s painful history reminds African Americans of humiliation suffered during the rise of minstrel entertainment. The banjo’s musical heritage began in Africa and came to America with slavery. White America took what was beautiful and created a symbol of mockery. Knowing the history of the banjo amplifies our understanding of the relationship between the two subjects in this painting and what the grandfather was truly sharing with his grandson. While Tanner never intended to be the painter of black life, The Banjo Lesson does serve to reclaim the banjo as an acceptable part of African American culture.

  1. Ellis, Dr. Rex M. With a Banjo on My Knee: A Musical Journey from Slavery to Freedom. Library of Congress Cataloging –in-Publication Data, 2001.
  2. Gates, Henry Louis Jr., Cornel West. The African American Century How Black Americans Shaped Our Country. New York: The Free Press, 2000.
  3. Visonia, Monica Blackmun, Robin Poynor, Herbert M. Cole. A History of Art in Africa. New York: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008.

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Page Last Updated: 20 August 2009