Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)
“The Banjo Lesson” (1893)
Tanner was the first African-American painter to gain international acclaim.
After teaching himself some art, he had enrolled as a young man in 1879 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He was the only black student.
Kara Walker, ‘Untitled’, cut paper and collage on paper (2009)
“Kara Walker had her first major success as an artist with her intricate and compulsive black-and-white paper silhouettes of imagined scenes from slave history in the American south. In 1994, her room-size mural, ‘Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart’, won her international acclaim, and made her at 27 one of the youngest ever recipients of a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant”
[Text taken from Tim Adams, ‘Kara Walker: “There is a moment in life where one becomes black” ’, The Guardian (September 27th, 2015) ]
Mary Edmonia Lewis (ca. July 4, 1845 – ca. 1911) was the first African American and Native American woman to gain fame and recognition as a sculptor in the international fine arts world. She was of African American, Haitian and Ojibwe descent.
Henry Ossawa Tanner was the United States’ first African-American celebrity artist. He trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and at the Académie Julian in Paris (with Jean-Léon Gérôme), which helped him to combine two vastly different approaches to painting: American Realism and French academic painting.
The United States had abolished slavery in 1865, only 28 years before this painting was created. Tanner was born in Pittsburgh within the tight-knit world of the highly educated members of America’s burgeoning African-American intelligentsia. His mother, Sarah, had been born a slave and escaped north to Pennsylvania through the Underground Railroad. His middle name, Ossawa, was chosen by his father, Benjamin Tucker Tanner, a Methodist minister and abolitionist, after Osawatomie, Kansas—the site of the abolitionist John Brown’s bloody confrontation with pro-slavery partisans on August 30, 1856.
Tanner lived most of his life in France and became well known for his lush biblical paintings. The Banjo Lesson is his most famous work and the painting that has become emblematic with his oeuvre. It shows an elderly black man teaching a boy, assumed to be his grandson, how to play the banjo. For Tanner, painting this image of generational torch-passing, was a way of demolishing stereotypes of African-Americans. In popular minstrel shows they were shown as boisterous, buffoonish, and dim-witted. With The Banjo Lesson, Tanner shows a very different picture.
After painting The Banjo Lesson, Tanner went back to France where he stayed for the rest of his life. He felt better there. He said: “In America, I’m Henry Tanner, Negro artist, but in France, I’m ‘Monsieur Tanner, l’artiste américaine.‘”
Supercomputing reveals centuries of stories, experiences of Black women
Women’s History Month is perfect timing for this story—a story about a quest to reveal the lives and experiences of Black women in the U.S. during the last three centuries. Hear from the group of researchers collaborating and using NSF-funded XSEDE supercomputing to fulfill this quest. Their discussion is on Advancing Discovery, a featured podcast at Science360 Radio: Science360.gov/radio
Above: Ruby Mendenhall, an associate professor of sociology, African American studies and urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is leading a collaboration of social scientists, humanities scholars and digital researchers that hopes to harness the power of high-performance computing to find and understand the historical experiences of black women by searching two massive databases of written works from the 18th through 20th centuries. The team also is developing a common toolbox that can help other digital humanities projects.
Credit: Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Above: Nicole Brown is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and part of Ruby Mendenhall’s group. She is interpreting the computational results in light of black feminist theory. Credit: Nicole Brown
Above: Harriet Tubman is famous as an abolitionist, Underground Railroad leader and women’s suffrage pioneer. Credit: H. B. Lindsley – National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Public Domain (PD-1875)
Above: Sculptor Edmondia Lewis (1844-1907) was the first woman of African- and Native-American descent to achieve notoriety in the fine arts world. She spent most of her career in Rome. Credit: Henry Rocher – National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Public Domain
Elizabeth Alice Catlett Mora aka Elizabeth Catlett
Country: United States/Mexico
Fun Fact: Her father, who died when Catlett was young, was a respected mathematics professor at Tuskegee Institute, where Booker T. Washington and George Carver taught years earlier. Having been denied admission to the Carnegie Institute because she was African American, Catlett attended Howard University and later earned a Master of Fine Art degree at the University of Iowa.
“Art is only important to the extent that it aids in the liberation of our people.”
Fun Fact: Artist and art historian Samella Lewis recalls the Louisiana of her youth. She recalls being frightened by the mayhem of Mardi Gras and perplexed why the black Mardi Gras clubs called themselves ‘Zulus’. Lewis further describes her youhtful rebellion against the segregation and racism of New Orleans. She also describes the source of friction between blacks, creoles and cajuns.
She was the Apprentice of Elizabeth Catlett
Quote: “I fight against segregation, discrimination, racism, brutality and depravity because these things deny people their rights as human beings,” Lewis asserted. “I feel everyone should be liberated from excessive brutality and situations confining them to a discouraging and demeaning place in life.”