A Familial Lesson of Love: ‘The Banjo Lesson’

Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
August 2, 2020 Updated: August 2, 2020

My family is very important to me. I really don’t know where I’d be without their constant love and care. My grandparents, uncles, and aunts all had a significant impact on my life, making sure I understood that I could become anything I wanted to be if I was willing to put in the effort. 

For me, Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting “The Banjo Lesson” reminds me of the affection and encouragement I received from my family. Tanner used the depiction of love within the black family as a way of mending the harsh reality of 19th-century race relations. Instead of propagating a divisive ideology of revolution and destruction, he decided to use his art to show how we human beings, irrespective of our differences, are all capable of love. 

Henry Ossawa Tanner

Tanner was a black American painter at the turn of the 20th century. His mother and father were former slaves but became quite accomplished after the Civil War. Despite their circumstances, Tanner’s parents raised him in a relatively cultured and educated household. 

As a young teenager, Tanner became interested in fine art. His parents were able to provide him with private lessons, and he eventually attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. In 1879, he was the first black American to attend the internationally respected academy, where he learned under the acclaimed artist Thomas Eakins. 

Tanner, however, left the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art to pursue a photography career in Atlanta. Though this venture would fail, he was able to make contacts in Atlanta who would fund his later travels overseas.   

After settling in Paris, Tanner became an internationally renowned artist himself. He found that Paris was more racially accepting than America. He wanted his paintings to be a catalyst for improving race relations in America.  

Tanner sought to use his paintings to undermine the negative effects of minstrelsy, a form of entertainment that often depicted black Americans with demeaning stereotypes. Minstrel shows became an accepted part of culture that propagated centuries of abuse toward American blacks.

For Tanner, art possessed the possibility of transforming those demeaning stereotypes into something positive: into a more accurate portrayal of black life in America. The artist began to paint images of black Americans as virtuous and dignified human beings in an attempt to repair and uplift black culture.

The black community felt hope through Tanner’s efforts. Sharon Patton, author of the “Oxford History of Art: African-American Art,” uses a quote by W.S. Scarborough, who is considered to be the first African American classical scholar, to exemplify this:

“African Americans hoped that the treatment of race subjects by Tanner ‘would serve to counterbalance so much that has made the race only a laughing stock subject for those artists who see nothing in it but the most extravagantly absurd and grotesque.’”  

‘The Banjo Lesson’ and a Spotlight on the Black Family

“The Banjo Lesson,” painted in 1893, is now one of Tanner’s most popular pieces. He depicts a tender moment shared across black generations. A grandfather is shown teaching his grandson how to play the banjo. 

A direct light source from the left of the composition illuminates the grandfather and grandson as they share a small wooden chair. The light source serves as a spotlight on the stage set for black life to play out. The grandfather looks intently and with care as he helps the boy hold the banjo and strum the chord of the day’s lesson. 

Tanner used yellows, blues, and loose brushstrokes to depict the scene, which are impressionistic methods he would’ve learned at the Académie Julian, a private studio for art students. The lighter yellows and blues and loose brushstrokes of the surrounding environment help the high contrast and highly detailed figures stand out. He placed everyday objects around the two figures to let the viewer know that this is a moment in the everyday life of the black American. 

Learning to Love

“The Banjo Lesson” speaks to me deeply today. It shows the significance of family, irrespective of race. Family is not something unique to Western culture; every major culture on earth has reaped the benefits of family. It is often through family that our young learn how to love, how to care, and how to treat other people. It is through family that we learn how to be or not to be a good human being. 

“The Banjo Lesson,” 1893, by Henry Ossawa Tanner. Oil on canvas, 49 inches by 35.5 inches. Hampton University Museum, Virginia. (Public Domain)

“The Banjo Lesson” also makes me consider how we learn. Do we not learn from our past and through our experiences? Who is better at learning than one who, like a child, is open to asking questions? Is it possible that we have lost, in our desire to condemn a tainted history, the childlike innocence of an open question? And if so, what do we lose in failing to be open to learn?

After considering the idea of learning, however, consider the reciprocal question of teaching. Who is better equipped to show us the way than those who have lived longer, who have experienced more? Is the past, in its ability to subsume all experience, not also one of our greatest teachers? 

How are we transmuting a troubled past into a fruitful future? Are we respecting the struggles of our past with our present creations? Are our creations infused with the love that we hope is cultivated between members of a family? How else are we to bring people together around divisive issues if we are not, with love, finding those areas in which we are more similar than we are different?

I think Tanner attempted to place this love in his art, a love bound in what is deeply relatable across cultures: family. He provided a lesson for white America of a relatable truth about black life in America, a truth grounded in the love and care of family. To the black American, Tanner’s painting not only provided hope but also taught the truth that blacks need not be defined by demeaning stereotypes, which unfortunately can, over time, be incorporated into concepts of black self-worth.

But for me, “The Banjo Lesson” is not merely a depiction of a black grandfather teaching his grandson how to play the banjo, nor is it merely a summation of everyday black life in America at the end of the 19th century. “The Banjo Lesson,” if we are open to learning from it, is a lesson on how to love and care for our fellow human beings through an institution that’s familiar to almost every culture on earth: family.

Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions I explore in my series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.”

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist. He is currently a doctoral student at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).