Critical Issues in American Art: A Book of Readings

By Mary Ann Calo | Go to book overview
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Lifting the "Veil"

Henry O. Tanner's The Banjo Lesson and The Thankful Poor


In her discussion of two domestic genre scenes by Henry Ossawa Tanner, Judith Wilson argues that although the technical sophistication of these works testifies to Tanner's artistic maturation and his allegiance to European aesthetic ideals, his strategic choice of subjects--black musical and religious practice--also enabled him to subtly undermine two very specific stereotypes of African Americans. Contrary to the widespread popular belief in innate black musicality and the superstitious emotionalism of black religion, Tanner crafts an image of African Americans in these paintings that personifies instead the values of education and dignified self-restraint fostered by the African Methodist Episcopal Church and black intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois.

As an educated black man who embodied the ideological tension of the so-called talented tenth, Tanner sought to convey a conception of African-American life and behavior more consistent with his own experience. Wilson further establishes that the radical challenge to prevailing representational conventions raised by these paintings has been overlooked in the face of an emergent black cultural nationalism that eschews earlier strategies of accommodation embraced by Tanner and his peers at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Henry O. Tanner 1893 painting, The Banjo Lesson, marks a turning point in Aftican-American art history. It was Tanner's first masterpiece, the first work in which he demonstrated his control of a range of technical skills unmatched by any previous black artist. For with Tanner we have the first Afro-American suited for greatness in the visual arts not only by talent and by temperament but also by training. Indeed his study with the eminent American realist Thomas Eakins at the period's leading art school, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, provided him with the most advanced art education then available in the United States. 1 And subsequently, when a nine-year struggle to survive as an artist in his native land 2 was ended by a generous pair of patrons who enabled him to go abroad, Tanner gained access to Europe's cultural resources--an experience then considered indispensable, the final step in an American artist's training. 3 Thus, Tanner probably was the first U.S. black fully equipped to succeed as a painter. 4

But The Banjo Lesson was not only a crowning symbol of the century-old Afro-American quest to obtain the skills, the sophistication, and


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