It is perhaps Henry Ossawa Tanner’s most well known painting. With bright light illuminating a table, cream-colored pitchers and plates and paintings in the background, “The Banjo Lesson” (1893) has its subjects mostly in shadow. There, in the foreground, only side lit, a young boy focuses on the instrument and the man, presumably his father, exudes patience. It is the pedagogic moment in this rustic sharecropper’s cabin, the moment of the transmission of knowledge from one generation to another.
Tanner’s painting undermines the racial stereotype of the time: that African Americans were musically inclined people and that banjo playing required little or no skill. It is one of a few genre paintings Tanner made that offered a new way of viewing African American life.
The painting is also autobiographical, suggesting the religious teachings Tanner’s father, a minister.
“The Banjo Lesson” is one of more than 100 works in Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit, on view at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts through April 15. The exhibit is accompanied by a scholarly catalog as well as a children’s book, Henry Ossawa Tanner: His Boyhood Dream Comes True, by artist and author Faith Ringgold.
One of the first African American students at PAFA – he studied there 1879 to 1885 — Tanner broke boundaries and traditions, moving beyond race to express a modern and personal spirituality.
Born in 1859, just two years before the Civil War began, he was the oldest of seven children. His middle name was taken from the town of Osawatomie, Kansas, the site of an anti-slavery raid. Henry’s mother, Sarah, was born a slave and escaped on the Underground Railroad. His father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, became a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The couple met at Avery College in Pennsylvania.
“Henry grew up in an educated and accomplished family,” recounts Lewis Tanner Moore, Tanner’s grandnephew. “A family that believed in education and pushed in that direction.”
Growing up in Philadelphia, Henry and his father were walking in Fairmount Park when he saw an artist painting. At the age of 13, he made up his mind to be an artist.
The Civil War had just ended. Benjamin did not have high hopes for his son’s dream. Henry’s mother, on the other hand, gave him 15 cents to buy pigments and brushes. “Sarah (Tanner) was by all reports a force to be reckoned with,” recounts Mr. Moore.
At PAFA, Tanner studied under Thomas Eakins, who painted Tanner’s portrait. After a teaching job at Clark College in Atlanta, Tanner moved to Paris and took classes at the Academie Julian. In Paris, an African American artist had more opportunities than in the U.S., and his work was accepted in the Paris Salon.
“He went to France and Europe in the way lots of artists go to Europe, particularly at that time,” says Mr. Moore. “There was a large community of American artists… it was the center of the art world. He found a public that accepted his work.”
In Paris, he lived a thoroughly cosmopolitan life. And like many artists studying in Paris, he retreated to the countryside in the summer. He traveled to Brittany where his landscapes focused on French peasants.
Tanner met his future wife, Jessie McCauley Olsson, a Swedish-American opera student. The couple married, had a son and returned to America.
“Tanner’s time spent in Brittany, absorbing the influence of the modern French academic tradition of peasant genre scenes… led him to create innovative portrayals of African Americans based on traditional genre scenes,” writes Anna O. Marley, PAFA’s Curator of Historical American Art in the exhibition catalog. “He did this by painting respectful, naturalistic depictions of African Americans that stood in sharp contrast to other, unfortunately more typical caricatured images.”
Tanner wrote: “… many of the artists who have represented Negro life have only seen the comic, the ludicrous side of it, and have lacked sympathy with and appreciation for the warm big heart that dwells within such a rough exterior.”
But reacting to the pressures of the market at the time, he shifted away from genre painting and toward religious painting, which fit in with his religious upbringing. In 1895, Tanner joined the American Art Association of Paris, then presided over by Philadelphia merchant heir Rodman Wanamaker. His father, John Wanamaker, had been a major patron of religious art, and this may have shaped Tanner’s new direction.
Tanner’s most famous religious painting, “The Resurrection of Lazarus,” inspired Rodman Wanamaker to fund the artist’s trip to the Holy Land. The 3-by-4-foot canvas puts the resurrected protagonist as the source of light. Lazarus, rising from a sea of white drapery, absorbs the warm illumination as a crowd of spectators emerging from shadows absorbs the miracle. The French government purchased the painting.
Tanner traveled to Cairo, Jerusalem, Port Said, Jaffa, Jericho, the Dead Sea and Alexandria, gathering ideas for exotic dress, architecture and artifacts, creating narrative paintings of the Middle East. In the early 1900s, he did a series of “Mothers of the Bible” for Ladies Home Journal, making him one of the best-known artists in the U.S., along with Maxfield Parrish, Edwin Austin Abbey and Howard Pyle.
“Tanner’s religious paintings provide a biblical frame of reference in which to see the rituals of daily life as the bonds that connect one person to another,” writes Marcus Bruce, professor of religious studies at Bates College, Lewiston, Maine, in the catalog. “His images are an agreement founded upon his belief that there are occasional locations and relationships where people… engage in the most human of activities and where extraordinary things can occur… Hence a music lesson, mealtime prayer, workplace, family gathering, conversation, midnight journey or solitary reflective moment became the places of shared experience familiar to viewers.”
Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spirit is on view at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 128 North Broad St., Philadelphia, through April 15, Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Wed. to 8 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: $15 adults, $12 seniors/students, $10 ages 13-18. www.pafa.org; 215-972-7600