Henry Ossawa Tanner, African American Artist of Many Firsts 

Henry Ossawa Tanner was the first African American artist to become a full academician of France’s National Gallery of Design. He continued getting awards even after his death, becoming the first African American artist to have a major solo exhibition in the United States (in 1969 at the Smithsonian). And in 1996, Tanner’s painting, Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City, was bought for the White House, the first painting by an African American to be added to that collection.

Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City by Henry O. Tanner, public domain

Henry Ossawa Tanner won numerous other awards and honors and has paintings in many museum collections. But success didn’t come first in the United States.

The post includes:

  • Information about Henry Ossawa Tanner
  • Information about his painting, The Banjo Lesson
  • Activities to help you and your children enjoy and understand The Banjo Lesson
  • A kid-friendly devotion based on the painting

The Artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner, photograph, public domain

Born in 1859, Henry grew up mainly in Philadelphia. His father was a minister and eventually a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and his mother, a teacher, had escaped from slavery on the Underground Railway.

In 1872 when he was just 13, Henry Ossawa Tanner saw a landscape artist at work in Fairmount Park. This large, scenic park stretches along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia and includes land once belonging to William Penn, the founder of the city. Henry stopped to watch and decided he wanted to be an artist.

Largely self-taught at first, Henry spent hours painting in Philadelphia’s zoo and at its waterfront, but when he graduated high school, his father apprenticed him to work in a flour mill. Henry had always been small and frail, and work in the mill made him so sick he had to quit and recover at home.

In later life, he credited his artistic abilities to his poor health, because he spent his recovery time painting. But Henry wanted formal training, and in 1879 he enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and studied under Thomas Eakins. He was the only African American student.

When Henry went out on his own, though, he found it difficult to succeed,  because so few were willing to give work to an African American artist. During this time, he traveled in North Carolina, painting ordinary people and their lives. His paintings showed African Americans with dignity.

After selling some paintings, he traveled to study in Paris as so many Americans did in the late 1800s. Tanner loved Paris and its art and was especially thankful to find more opportunity and less discrimination. He married another American living in Paris, and together they made Paris their home, only returning to America for visits.

Tanner painted landscapes and many scenes of ordinary French life as he had in North Carolina,

The Young Sabot Maker by Henry O. Tanner, public domain

but eventually turned more and more to religious subjects. He took several long trips to study and paint in the Middle East, because he wanted to show real people in authentic settings. He once said he, “preached with his brush.” He won awards with his religious works and was one of the first African American artists to win international fame.

I posted his Annunciation and The Annunciation to the Shepherds for my Christmas post. But for today’s post we’re going to look at another of Tanner’s famous paintings, The Banjo Lesson, probably painted during a trip home to Philadelphia.

The Painting, The Banjo Lesson

While studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, Tanner came to love the art of Rembrandt. He shared the Dutch artist’s faith and appreciated his many portraits of Jesus as well as other biblical subjects. Tanner also loved the way Rembrandt used light and shadow to create drama in his paintings. Probably above all, Tanner wanted, like Rembrandt, to show the emotions and character of his subjects and give dignity to everyday people and their work.

Tanner’s studies in France added lighter colors—cool blues and warm yellows and reds—and sometimes looser and more expressive brush strokes to his style. But Tanner never changed his focus on a realistic, sympathetic portrayal of his subjects, whether it was a landscape or people.

Jesus and Nicodemus by Henry O. Tanner, public domain

Tanner continued to experiment with how to use light to create atmosphere and heighten a painting’s message as in The Annunciation, where the Angel Gabriel is shone as a pillar of light. Notice how the light forms a cross with the shelf high on the wall.

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner, American, 1850-1937,Philadelphia Museum of Art, public domain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We see all these influences in The Banjo Lesson

The Banjo Lesson by Henry O. Tanner, public domain

  • A realistic and quiet genre scene of everyday life
  • Lights and shadows to highlight the subjects, who are treated with dignity
  • A sympathetic portrayal of the loving bond and interaction between the boy and his grandfather.

Activities to Help You and Your Children further Explore this Beautiful Painting

Before doing any other activities, ask children to tell what’s going on in the painting and what tells them that. Enhance their observational and verbal skills by rephrasing words and adding new vocabulary.

The Banjo Lesson is both a sensitive portrait of a man and boy and a quiet story about them. Use these questions to enjoy it together:         

  • Have the man and boy just finished a meal? What would make us think that?
  • What are the 2 light sources? (Window and fireplace)
  • How does Tanner use the light to focus our attention on the faces and hands of the boy and man?
  • Notice how the man’s hands mirror the child’s hands and look ready to help only if needed
  • Ask children to use their 5 senses to explore the painting. Would they hear hesitant notes from the banjo or a flowing tune? Would they feel warmth from the fire? Would they smell coffee or other foods? Is the floor rough or smooth?
  • What do the objects tell about the people? hat, frying pan, rough cloth on table, simple chair, etc. (Play a game with children: have them look at the painting for a minute and then turn around and tell you all the things they remember)
  • Are these people wealthy or poor? What makes us think this?
  • Are these people related? What makes us think this?
  • What words would describe the man? The boy? Encourage children to go beyond physical appearance to emotions, such as patience, attentive, kind, loving, etc.

Devotion

After viewing The Banjo Lesson talk about your family with your children. You might begin with a story about a grandparent or your childhood and then ask some of the following questions:

  • What makes your family special?
  • What are some things they know about family history, such as where the family came from or stories from tough times.
  • Have any objects or traditions been handed down from older generations?
  • What are some interests and hobbies of family members?
  • Have any of these been handed down from grandparents or other family members?

Ask children whether when they looked at The Banjo Lesson, they felt like the man, probably the boy’s grandfather, loved his grandson and was patiently teaching him how to play the banjo?

The Banjo Lesson by Henry O. Tanner, public domain

  • Talk with your children about how families were created by God to be places where children would be loved and accepted and could be encouraged and instructed as they grow and learn skills.
  • Ask them what skills they have learned from family members.

Loving and accepting families also help children learn about God’s love and acceptance (read Deuteronomy 5:4-7).

  • Jesus was born into a family. He had a mother and earthly father like other children. God knew Jesus needed a family who loved Him and helped Him grow in wisdom and stature and favor with God and men (read Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 2:39-52).
  • Ask children what they have learned about God and Jesus from parents and grandparents.
  • Ask if they’ve learned more from words and conversations or from actions?

Prayer:

Heavenly Father, thank You for loving us and send Your Son to grow up in a family. We are so thankful for our family where we can be loved and accepted and learn about Jesus. Help us be attentive and want to learn to love and please our parents and You. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.

______________________________________________

Molly and I hope you enjoyed learning about Henry Ossawa Tanner and his paintings. We also hope you’ll join us again for an art project all about family!

 

 

10 thoughts on “Henry Ossawa Tanner, African American Artist of Many Firsts 

  1. Katherine Pasour

    What an interesting post, Kathy! I am sad to say that I had never heard of Mr. Tanner until I read about him in your posts. His artwork is amazing. Such a tragedy that he was unable to get the recognition he deserved in the US. I’m grateful that Paris was a place where he could grow and develop his God-given talent. Thank you for sharing this message focusing on his life, faith, and dedication.

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    1. Kathy The Picture Lady Post author

      Hi Katherine! I’m so glad you enjoyed learning about him. Tanner was such an amazing and faith-filled artist, and as you said, it’s so sad he received little recognition in this country until well after his death. for many years I only knew about The Banjo Lesson, but once I learned more about him, he’s certainly become one of my favorite artists.

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  2. Becky Van Vleet

    Kathy, I really enjoyed learning more about Heny Tanner. I had no idea one of his painting was in the White House.. I always appreciate the thought provoking questions you include and the spiritual applications.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. Kathy The Picture Lady Post author

      Thank you Becky! I have always loved The Banjo Lesson and Tanner’s religious paintings, but I was surprised at some of the new things I learned about him as I researched for this post. Don’t you just love research! What questions do you find most helpful as you looked at this painting? Would some be better than others for children?

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

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