The first famous Black American artist – Henry Ossawa Tanner

This painting deserves to be better known and with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is time to examine it once more.

I first showed this painting in a lecture 8 years ago. It’s called ‘The Banjo Lesson’ (1893) and it’s by Henry Ossawa Tanner.

Henry Ossawa Tanner was the first successful African-American artist. He triumphed in a world that was predominantly white to create paintings of power, beauty and poignancy.

Tanner’s mother was a black slave who had dramatically escaped via a railroad. His father was a Methodist minister and an abolitionist. Henry’s middle name, ‘Ossawa’, referred to the struggle at Osawatomie in Kansas, between pro- and anti-slavery partisans.

Tanner was the only black student (at that time) to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. His talent was recognised early, particularly by his teacher Thomas Eakins. He went on, like many great artists, to train in Paris where he encountered the work of Courbet and Millet.

Despite his success and clear skill, Tanner frequently experienced racism during his time in America. He recalled ‘I was extremely timid and to be made to feel that I was not wanted, although in a place where I had every right to be, even months afterwards caused me sometimes weeks of pain’.

After marrying a Swedish American woman one contemporary described: ‘He is an awefully [sic] talented man but he is black. … She seems like a well-educated girl and really very nice but it makes me sick to see a cultivated woman marry a man like that.’

Tanner’s most famous work is ‘The Banjo Lesson’ from 1893. It shows a grandfather passing on his creative knowledge to his grandson – a tender moment of human interaction.

What’s so important about this artwork?

Prior to this painting, black people had long been stereotyped as entertainers. They appeared in minstrel shows as buffoonish, ridiculous and dim-witted. Images propagated this idea that even if black people were no longer slaves, they were still inferior.

Tanner was one of the first to reel against this idea. He painted black people with grace, dignity and sensitivity. In this image, he paints the grandfather and grandson with nobility – they are intelligent and visibly capable of learning.

This quiet painting of beauty was an image of extreme resilience. Tanner de-bunked racist notions that had persisted for years.

Note the light. The boy is depicted with a warm, golden glow on his face. He’s in the foreground, closest to us. A blue, colder light falls upon his grandfather’s face. He recedes into the background.

The light differentiates the two worlds.

The grandfather is from the old world – a world of slavery, inequality and oppression.

All our hopes are now pinned on this boy. He represents a new world, the future.

What kind of world will he emerge into? A world of opportunity, education and change? A world where he will be treated as an equal?

Despite being painted over 100 years ago, this painting is still just as relevant an image today.

If you are interested in finding out more about Art History, including American Art History, why not join one of my Live Online Art History Lectures or Courses? Visit the online talks page to see my list of live talks.