The Banjo-Lesson Problem

Thoughts on the Life of Henry Ossawa Tanner for Black History Month

Henry Ossawa Tanner is known for paintings of so-called “Negro Life” in the 1800s, most notably The Banjo Player, which shows an older man teaching his young nephew how to play. It’s lovely—but it raises deeply troubling concerns about how we edit and diminish the contributions of artists based on race.


First, who was Tanner? The son of a Methodist minister born in 1859 in Pittsburg, he wanted to be an artist from a young age. In 1891 he moved to Paris, where he studied at the Académie Julian and achieved considerable success as a painter. While living there, he married and had a son. He was buried in Paris in 1937.


His oil paintings are luminous and moody, and to my eye, he was not only an Impressionist (a contemporary Of Claude Monet), but an Impressionist with a powerful vision and style of his own who specialized in landscapes, portraits, and religious scenes. If we could visit Paris in that amazing period—a huge leap in art history—we would visit his studio as so many others did, and we’d encounter his work in major exhibitions.


He is little known today. The Dallas Museum of Art exhibited two paintings last summer. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts put together a major show, but that was back in 2012.


Biographies generally describe him as “a pioneering African-American artist” (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) or “the first African-American painter to gain international acclaim” (Wikipedia). And the go-to example of his work always pops up: The Banjo Player, painted in 1893 while back in Pennsylvania recovering from illness and saving up to return to Paris.


But is that who Tanner was? In truth, he painted very few genre scenes of the imagined bucolic lives of African Americans. Mostly he painted luminous landscapes and religious scenes set in Europe or the Middle East. He was an expat who chose to put the breadth of the Atlantic Ocean between himself and American racism so that he could pursue his art fully.


The lovely canvas of the banjo lesson is actually his second version, the first being an illustration for the story "Uncle Tim's Compromise on Christmas” by Mary Routh McEnery Stuart (for Harper’s Young People in 1893). The illustration appeared in black and white in a small box above the caption, “Dis head's a fus’-class thing tea work off bad tempers wid.” It was a quote from the article, which employs racist characterization of imagined African American vernacular, as was done by white writers for entertaining effect in the same way that white performers donned blackface and butchered Black minstrel traditions for racist entertainment.


Stuart’s writing was based on insulting caricatures of Black characters. “Contemporary critics acclaimed her as providing an authentic representation of African Americans” according to Ethel C. Simpson’s article about her in The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. How did Stuart become such an authority on African Americans and their dialects? "It has been said that the Rouths and the McEnerys owned more slaves than any other two families in the United States,” according to Mary Frances Fletcher’s A Biographical and Critical Study of Ruth McEnery Stuart.


African Americans didn’t look like the caricatures of the 1800s, and nor did Tanner. He was interviewed for an article for International Studio in 1914, and the back-and-forth with its author has been reproduced and analyzed by art historians (see https://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/autumn09/a-missing-question-mark) He praised the article, but took exception to its description of him:


“Now am I a Negro? Does not the 3/4 of English blood in my veins, which when it flowed in ‘pure' Anglo-Saxon men & which has done in the past, effective & distinguished work in the U.S.—does this not count for anything? Does the 1/4 or 1/8 of ‘pure' Negro blood in my veins count for all?”


Anyone with mixed parentage will sympathize, I think. While considered Black at their schools and community here in Vermont (where most of our region identifies as White), my kids are, like Mr. Tanner and his son, not ‘purely’ one race nor another and sometimes uncomfortable with being seen one-dimensionally.


At the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where Tanner studied painting, fellow students were well aware of his racial status and singled him out for “teasing” which to the modern eye equals harassment and hate crimes. For instance, one night they dragged Tanner and his easel out into the road and tied him to it. Paris was by comparison considerably more hospitable.


Here are some of Tanner’s accomplishments: Daniel in the Lions’ Den received an honorable mention at the Paris Salon of 1896 and a silver medal at the Universal Exposition in Paris 1900. The Raising of Lazarus (c. 1897), won a medal at the Paris Salon of 1897 and was purchased by the French government and is now in the collection of the Louvre. Nicodemus Visiting Jesus won the PAFA’s Lippincott Prize in 1990. He also received a medal at the Universal Exposition in Paris of 1990. In 1908, American Art Galleries of New York staged a one-man show of Tanner’s work. In 1923, he was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honour. In 1927, he became a full academic member in the National Academy of Design in New York, which until then had excluded all artists of color.


Mr. Tanner’s biracial marriage would have been highly problematic in the United States at the time, where many State laws made it illegal. In Pace v. Alabama, an 1883 case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state-level bans on interracial marriage do not violate the 14th Amendment ( against discrimination) because, rather than discriminate against any group, Alabama’s law punished both of the parties to the interracial marriage equally. As is so often the case, tortured logic was needed to maintain the status quo. Of course there was earlier precedent for such bans too, starting in 1664 when Maryland passed at the British colonial law that included this striking sentence:


Whatsoever freeborn woman shall intermarry with any slave … shall serve the master of such slave during the life of her husband, and that the [children] of such freeborn women so married shall be slaves as their fathers were.”


The Tanner family found Paris a far friendlier environment.


My dad loved his shelf of Encyclopedia Brittanica volumes and I still go to them as a source from time to time. Here is how Brittanica describes Tanner: “American painter who gained international acclaim for his depiction of landscapes and biblical themes.”


That is factual and I think would have satisfied Mr. Tanner. Once said, it suggests a need to elevate his work to at least a page or two in the art history textbooks, along with a major exhibition once a generation or more.


For Tanner, The Banjo Player helped pay the bills while on a return visit to his racist country of birth. While it demonstrates the quality of his hand, it does not represent his contribution to art. We greatly diminish his importance by stuffing him into a box defined by genre paintings of ‘colored folk’ and nostalgia for the ‘good old days’.


That is why I posted images of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s fine European paintings for Black History Month. Our nation still has a lot of trouble with the myths and realities of race, so I hope it isn’t asking too much that we might be able to appreciate a more nuanced view of people—including those like Tanner who can’t easily be crammed into a single racial peg-hole. He was so much more than an African American genre painter.


Calling all curators! Can we please see a major exhibition of his work somewhere in the U.S. in the next year or two?


Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key, about a protagonist who, like his own family and Mr. Tanner’s, does not fit neatly into simplistic notions about race.




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