Critical Issues in American Art: A Book of Readings

By Mary Ann Calo | Go to book overview

such quintessentially African practices--and unable to see that capturing their spirit (as opposed to their likeness) might require something other than existing European-derived stylistic means 76--he nevertheless made an unprecedented attempt to "sing Negro songs," to celebrate Afro-American culture at a time and in a nation that did not make it easy for him to do so.


NOTES

Revised by the author from Contributions in Black Studies 9/10 ( 1990- 1992). Reprinted by permission of the author.

I am extremely grateful to Robert L. Herbert, whose fall 1981 graduate seminar at Yale on Jean François Millet and Gustave Courbet's treatment of peasant subject matter inspired the initial version of this essay, and to Ernest Allen Jr., editor of the journal Contributions in Black Studies, in which this essay originally appeared.

1.
Louise Lippincott, "Thomas Eakins and the Academy," In This Academy: The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1805-1976 ( Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1976), p. 182.
2.
Marcia M. Mathews, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1859-1937 ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), pp. 15-16, 31-32; Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, Sharing Traditions: Five Black Artists in Nineteenth- Century America (exhibition catalog), Washington, DC: National Museum of American Art, January 15-April 7, 1985, pp. 102-103.
3.
Mathews, p. 41.
4.
Tanner was not the first African-American artist to travel to Europe. But painters like Robert S. Duncanson and Robert Douglass, Jr., who preceded him there, followed the earlier practice of "studying" by copying Old Master works at major museums, rather than taking classes in which one not only absorbed the lessons of the master/instructor but also interacted with a peer group. Hartigan, pp. 58-60; James A. Porter , Modern Negro Art ( New York: Arno Press, 1969), p. 34.
5.
That the situation has now changed was powerfully signalled by a 1993 article in which Albert Boime independently arrived at a view of the painting much like that of the present essay, which originally had been published in 1992. Boime, "Henry Ossawa Tanner's Subversion of Genre," The Art Bulletin, Vol. 75, no. 3 ( September 1993): 415-442. Judith Wilson, "Lifting 'The Veil': Henry O. Tanner's The Banjo Lesson and The Thankful Poor," Contributions in Black Studies, nos. 9/10 ( 1990- 1992): 31-54.

With a few notable exceptions, general blindness to The Banjo Lesson's pivotal status prevailed as late as 1991, when the Philadelphia Museum of Art published the catalog for its monumental Tanner exhibition co-cu- rated by Dewey Mosby and Darrel Sewell. Recognizing Tanner's "departure from conventional treatments" of black subject matter, Sewell hailed him as "the first African-American artist to produce black genre works" and shed unprecedented light on the formal achievement of The Banjo Lesson by observing that, while "[s]omething of the same seriousness and intense observation can be found in Thomas Eakins watercolor Negro Boy Dancing, . . . the rich color keyed to the values of the subjects' skin is unique to Tanner."

Sewell failed to appreciate the ideological significance of the artist's innovations, however, claiming that "[i]n choosing the theme of The Banjo Lesson Tanner did not break new ground." Sewell, Henry Ossawa Tanner (exhibition catalog), Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, January 20-April 14, 1991; pp. 119-120.

In contrast, in publications released around the same time, Naurice Frank Woods, Guy G. McElroy, and Albert Boime each noted and attributed varying degrees of significance to the contrast between "stereotyped images of the 'banjo-plucking darkey'" ( Woods) and Tanner's careful differentiation of "[musical] education" from "entertainment" ( McElroy). Woods, "Lending Color to Canvas: Henry O. Tanner's African-American Themes," American Visions, Vol. 6, no. 1 ( February 1991): 14, 17. McElroy, Facing History: The Black Image in American Art 1710-1940 (exhibition catalog), Washington, DC: The Corcoran Gallery of Art, January 13-March 25, 1990; p. 102. Boime, The Art of Exclusion: Representing Blacks inthe Nineteenth Century

-213-

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