An African American Realist and student of Thomas Eakins, Tanner faced much racism in the U.S. which had a profound influence on his work. Tanner painted this piece when he had come back to the U.S. for an African American Congress in Chicago (he had been living in Paris). This is Tanner’s first major painting of African American life. Here, Tanner presents a banjo lesson in a modest setting, an elderly man and small boy, likely possessing a familial connection, strum the banjo. They are very focused, this lesson is a passing of knowledge orally rather than in written form, the banjo acting as a conduit of cultural knowledge. Though likely a slave and kept illiterate, the man is able to pass on his musical talents. Making music was a viable profession for African Americans at this time, yet Tanner’s depiction contrasts strongly with stereotypical depictions of banjo players, often grotesque exaggerated renderings. Tanner is dignifying the often satirized subject by showing the child playing in a new style, showing his advanced skill at a young age. Tanner kept the detail and light in the center of the canvas on the central figures, while his looser brushstrokes kept the surrounding space sparse. His expressive light and shadow are reminiscent of Rembrandt giving the work a quasi-religious feel.
(image courtesy of wikipedia and the Hampton University Museum)
William Dean Howells (March 1, 1837 – May 11, 1920)
American realist novelist, literary critic, and playwright, nicknamed “The Dean of American Letters”. He was particularly known for his tenure as editor of The Atlantic Monthly, as well as for his own prolific writings, including the Christmas story “Christmas Every Day” and the novels The Rise of Silas Lapham and A Traveler from Altruria. (Wikipedia)
From our stacks: 1. Cover from A Chance Acquaintance. By William D. Howells. Illustrated by William L. Sheppard. Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1877. 2. Title page, 3. “W. D. Howells, Age Eighteen”, 4. Frontispiece “W. D. Howells The week he was seventy years old from a photograph by Brown Brothers, New York” from My Literary Passions. Criticism & Fiction. W. D. Howells. Illustrated. New York & London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1910.