Meanwhile, on the TumblR: The Story Behind The Banjo Lesson

As ever, Andrea has been curating notes on all sorts of works at the Racialicious Tumblr, including Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson:

In 1893, Tanner painted this work while in Philadelphia, to which he had returned from Paris to recover from typhoid fever. The Banjo Lesson was one of two genre paintings Tanner produced at a time in which poor southern blacks, still scarred by slavery, are presented with unsentimental dignity. The reserve of Tanner’s subjects departs from the traditional image of the gregarious black performer. The Banjo Lesson was painted three years before the Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), during a period when whites were committing lynchings and other crimes of intimidation to reestablish racial separation in the South.

In this quiet scene a young boy is cradled in the arms of an older black man who holds up the neck of the banjo—an instrument too large for the boy to support. The boy tentatively strums the banjo with his awkwardly cocked right hand, while his left hand struggles with fingering. The two figures form a tight compositional and emotional unit, thoroughly absorbed in their world.

Get more of the story here, and follow along for more every week!

  • arthist

    There’s a big exhibition of Henry Ossawa Turner’s work going on right now! It just finished its run in Pennsylvania, opens in Cincinnati Art Museum on May 26, and moves to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in September.
    (There’s a scholarly catalog being published with the show, as well as a
    children’s book about Tanner written and illustrated by the amazing Faith Ringgold. Which has got to be the most awesome exhibition publication I’ve heard about in, like, ever.)

  • Anonymous

    Many people don’t know that the banjo is African and based on an African instrument. It somehow became synonymous with poor whites. I love this painting. Thank you for this article.

    • 8mph Ansible


      When I learned that some years past it actually made me appreciate the picture within that context and a deeper feeling for the “metaphor of protection, tradition, and the bond furnished by music as it is passed from generation to generation,” rather than look at it, think it was cute and move along.

    • WS

      “Many people don’t know that the banjo is African and based on an African instrument. It somehow became synonymous with poor whites.”

      Yes. Cultural transmission rarely goes one way.