Banjo Legacy Many say a picture is worth a thousand words. This holds to be true with the painting called The Banjo Lesson by Henry Ossawa Tanner. This painting is an example of the 19th century realism. Realism is the tendency to see things as they really are. (realism) These ideas of realism and Tanner collide into the painting, The Banjo Lesson bringing forth a comprehensive visual analysis, and a historical view through race, gender, class, and events in 1893 that make this painting almost come alive. The banjo lesson by Henry Ossawa Tanner was painted in 1893 on oil on canvas.
This was a medium sized painting that showed great values visually and yet gave messages still important to remember to this day. This painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner has many great aspects visually that make it one great piece of art work. The painting is of a old black man that may be a former slave is teaching a young black child how to play the banjo, an instrument from the African culture. (banjo) It almost gives a feel that the young child is the older gentleman’s grandson. They are sitting on a chair and the young child is sitting in his lap looking at the banjo.
The older black man is also looking at the banjo. The older black man is holding the child on his knee, almost to keep him from becoming unbalanced and falling. The black man is supporting the child on his knee. The black man has one hand on the banjo and one hand near his knee. The child has both hands on the banjo and seems very concentrated on what he is trying to learn. It shows a point in time when a grandfather is teaching his grandson how to play the banjo. The setting that these two people are in is a room setting. There are pots and pans on the floor and a coat rack in the corner.
It seems to be just a small room, but the two people in the painting don’t even seem to recognize what surrounds them. They are so enticed by the banjo to really care about their surroundings at the time. The room looks very rugged, with not much detail put into it for it is not as important or the focal point of the painting. The focal point is the boy and the older gentlemen sitting in the middle of the room on a wooden chair. The colors contrast in this painting to make them almost glow in the colors Tanner uses. Tanner takes on the challenge of making it as realistic as possible. He has two separate light sources.
A natural white, blue glow from outside enters from the left while the warm light from a fireplace on the right. The figures are illuminated where the two light sources meet. It seems to be a transition between the world that the two people live compared to the world that they would like to live in. A world where there is no bad, evil people. A fair just world. The lighting makes time stop almost so they can continue their banjo time and be in that world for just a moment of their lives and forget about all that has happened to them in the past, and try not to think what will happen to them in the future.
This painting uses color schemes to draw your attention to the message he is trying to get across. In this painting, he is trying to focus on the little boy and the older gentlemen. It has a warmer composition and uses gentle colors to contrast a balance that do not leave the viewer in one place on the painting yet, a viewer would know that the main point is the two people playing the banjo for they are almost illuminated by the light that Tanner uses. There are strong contrasting colors of the dark skin people against a pale background to create an emphasis on the main part of the painting, which is the child and the man.
The dark tones bring the focal point of the painting alive and give it an luminosity at that point to make it more special. This luminosity gives the painting of calm and tranquil setting. There seems to be no disturbance, and everything is just standing still at this special moment between this child and man. The lighting in the room creates a rhythm with the people on the chair that gives them some sense of greatness. That in that moment, the world has stopped moving to focus on one of the great moments that really matter in life.
That no matter what has happened, or is going to happen, doesn’t matter and that in the end it will be ok. Tanner uses certain color to make this painting into something special for all viewers but his message behind the painting is very important in why he decides to focus on these two black people for the main part of his creative painting. This painting was painted during the Jim Crowe laws that started in 1880’s. The Jim Crowe laws were the segregation between blacks and whites at that time. It was supposedly “ Separate but equal” for the African-Americans at that time.
African Americans were not treated very equally though. There were separate schools, churches, communities, and even water fountains. They had to sit in a certain spot on the bus, and were often ridiculed by white people. (“Jim Crowe Laws”) It is certain that after their treacherous time with slavery, they are now subjected to this treatment of inequality and ridicule by whites once again. Many white people could not accept the fact that they were equal to them. This created a battle between black and white people, that drew a line of despair and resentment.
Now, why am is this important to this particular painting? There is a message in this painting that portrays this sense of humanity to the way white people pictured black people. They were stereotyped into this category that many people would not quite understand. Black people of the 19th century have been long time stereotyped as entertainers in American culture. This work takes the stereotype of a crazy, banjo-playing black man and turn it into a more humanistic look to this piece of work by Tanner.
Tanner gives this painting true meaning that African Americans are not this crazy people that whites perceive them to be. Tanner gives it more of a intellectual and sensitive approach. It gives the viewer a specific moment in human interaction. It shows the true feelings and special moments that can be applied to all peoples of race, class, and gender. It takes away that stereotype and portrays a feeling of humanity that’s in all people. That the man and child playing the banjo are not some crazy lunatics people of that time portrayed them to be, but as if they are real humans, doing what real humans do.
Real humans teach the young certain things that will help them go on in life. It portrays that these are real people and not just types of people. This painting is about reclaiming that identity that was long gone taken from African Americans. They were seen as foolish, silly and not able to be taken seriously. Many whites assumed that black people weren’t smart. Tanner is trying to reclaim this identity by highlighting them in this painting. It gives a sense that there is more than meets the eye. The two people seem very focused on the task at hand in this painting.
They seem to be oblivious to the world around them which gives a sense of real contact and cooperation within the banjo lesson. The banjo is too big for the little boy but the possible grandfather is holding him stable, so he may not fall. The life lesson is very important theme in this painting. Many slaves were traumatized by the way they were treated and the unjust past that they had. Most of them expressed their sorrows or feelings through music. Not many could read or write for that is the way many of their masters wanted for it was a way of controlling what they did.
So, knowing that a person can assume that they used music to express themselves. It was a way of therapy for them. The banjo is a instrument derived from Africa brought here by the slaves. (Banjo) This instrument helped them with the traumas of being over repressed for many, many years. The traumas that were happening at the time were the Jim Crowe laws that were put into books to stop blacks from school and government participation. This links the legacy of slavery to the laws and the experiences that many African-Americans went through. The race in this painting is very important aspect.
The fact that this painting gives light to the African-Americans in the painting and gives them a sense of real humanistic features. It takes away the normal stereotype and shows that they are real people, who do real things, such as teach a young person how to play the banjo. The class of people is also important for they are the low on the totem pole people that usually are not even focused on or recognized in American culture at the time because they are considered inferior. This picture brings a new meaning to the black culture and shows that they are the same as everyone else whether they are black, purple, or poor.
The painting shows the true meaning of the way African Americans should have been perceived in the late 19th century. That they are real humans and not the stereotype they were given by the white culture. There were aspects of Race, class, and politics in the painting that give it a meaning of importance at that time and even in this time. It shows that people shouldn’t just look at what meets the eye and give people a chance to really show what is possible. The banjo lesson is a painting that relates reality to perception and that is what makes this piece of artwork flow with the rhythm of time.