Tag Archives: Henry Ossawa Tanner

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.

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