Tag Archives: Henry Ossawa Tanner

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.

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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!

 

 

15 Famous Paintings Show the Wonder of the Christmas Story

Artists through the years have been filled with wonder and joy at the events of the first Christmas and I pray their efforts here to illustrate their wonder will bring joy to your Christmas this year!

Here are 15 famous paintings of the Christmas Story and the Bible verses they illustrate.

 The Annunciation to Mary  

. . . the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with chlld and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” Luke,1:30-33 NIV

Fra Angelico was a monk who painted frescoes of Jesus’ life throughout his monastery in Florence. This annunciation greets you as you climb the stairs to the monks’ chambers. I wrote a Christmas post about this painting in December of 2015.

The Annunciation, by Fra Angelico, 1395-1455, Italian, Convent of San Marco, Florence, author photo

This triptych or 3-panel altarpiece is one of the first Annunciations to show Mary in a regular home, in this case,  a typical home in the Netherlands in the 1300 and 1400s. Almost everything in this painting symbolizes something about Jesus and His birth. For example, Mary is sitting on the floor to symbolize her humility.

The Annunciation triptych of the Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin, 1375-1444, Netherlandish, Cloisters, NY, public domain

This Annunciation is part of a huge altarpiece painted by Matthias Grunewald. It is now a treasured part of a monastery-turned museum in Colmar, France. But it narrowly escaped destruction during the French Revolution.

The annunciation, part of the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald, 1470-1528, German, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France, author photo

Henry Ossawa Tanner, an African-American artist of the 19th and early 20th centuries depicts the angel Gabriel as a column of radiating light.

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

The Incarnation

The angel answered [Mary], “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” Luke 1:35 NIV

In this illuminated manuscript by the Celtic monks of Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland, the Incarnation is depicted as the miraculous mystery it is–a mystery beyond our imagining–that God could be born of a woman to live among us as Immanuel and die for our sins! In December of 2014, I wrote a post about the Chi Rho page that most illuminated manuscripts of the early Middle Ages have.  It is the illumination of Matt. 1:18, where the gospel switches from Jesus’ ancestry to His birth with the Latin words Christi autem generatio, which means, “this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about….” For this reason it is called the Incarnation page, and on it the monks used a traditional symbol for the word Christ–the first two letters of Christ in Greek–Chi-Rho or XP.

The Incarnation or Chi Rho page of the Book of Kells, Irish, ca. A.D. 800, Trinity Library, Dublin, Ireland, public domain

The Visitation 

.  . . . [Mary] entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored; that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Luke 1:40-43 NIV

In this beautiful painting of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, we see the emotion in each of their faces and gestures as they experience together the wonder of what God has done!

The Visitation by Jacopo Pontormo, Italian, 1494-1557, Church of San Francesco e Michele, Carmignano, Italy, public domain

The Nativity 

While they were there [Bethlehem], the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Luke 2:6-7 NIV

In the lower, plainer church of St. Francis of Assisi is this beautiful painting of the Nativity by Giotto. St. Francis is said to be the one who began the practice of having a creche scene at Christmas.

The Nativity in the Lower Church at Assisi, Italy, by Giotto di Bondone, Italian, 1267-1337, public domain

The Annunciation to the Shepherds

   And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be assigned to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”  Luke 2:8-14 NIV

Another beautiful painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner, this time a nocturnal scene of the angel’s annunciation to the shepherds. It captures the wonder of the angel’s appearance and their amazement!

Annunciation to the Shepherds by Henry Ossawa Tanner, American. 1859-1937, public domain

The only print in this group, it’s by Rembrandt and also captures the wonder of that night.

Annunciation to the Shepherds by Rembrandt, public domain

Honthorst has captured the continuing wonder of the shepherds as they follow the angel’s instructions to find the babe wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. This year’s Christmas post was about this painting.

Adoration of the Christ Child by Gerrit van Honthorst, Dutch, 1592-1656, Uffizi,Art Gallery, Florence, Italy, author photo

Mary’s joy in her son is so evident in another panel from the Isenheim Altarpiece. The Altarpiece was painted for a monastery where the monks treated people with skin diseases, and it was believed that gazing on these paintings would help the patients be reminded of Christ and His love and salvation for even the most humble. In December of 2018, I wrote a Christmas post about this painting.

Mary and the Christ Child, a panel of The Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald, German, 1470-1528, Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France, author photo

The Visit of the Magi

after Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem and asked, “where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the East and have come to worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they [Magi] went on their way in the store they had seen in the East went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and myrrh. Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11 NIV

Durer shows the coming of the wisemen, here depicted as elegant and wealthy men, to worship the Christ Child. Medieval tradition held that one of the wisemen was an old man, another was a young man, and one was African.

Adoration of the Magi by Albrecht Durer, German, 1471-1528, Uffizi Art Gallery, Florence, Italy, public domain

The Massacre of the Innocents

when Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Matthew 2:16 NIV

This fresco is from a series Giotto painted on the life of Christ in the small but beautiful Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy. A forerunner of the Renaissance, Giotto amazed his contemporaries with his life-like people. Here he shows the intense emotions of the Massacre of the Innocents.

The Massacre of the Innocents by Giotto di Bondone, Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy, public domain

The Flight or Escape into Egypt

When they [Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt . . . Matthew 2:13-14 NIV

After the intensity of the last painting, this one of the Fight into Egypt seems so calm and even restful.  but as Mary holding the Baby Jesus looks back at Joseph, you can sense her sense of urgency.

The flight into Egypt by Annibale Carracci, Italian, 1560-1609, Galleria Dorla Pamphilj, Rome, public domain

Another calm painting as Mary offers grapes to her son. In the background Joseph is shown beating  nuts or perhaps fruit from a tree to care for them. The donkey waits patiently beside them.

Rest on the flight into Egypt by Gerard David, Netherlandish, 1460-1523, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. public domain

I hope these paintings will bless your celebration of the wonder of the birth of our Savior–Immanuel, God with us! And that the wonder and joy will continue to fill you in the New Year!