Overcoming odds is something that is often talked about in history. People often express their struggles in many different forms. Henry O. Tanner was an extradinary man who challenged viewers through his art. As an African American artist, Mr. Tanner experienced the same racism and moral hatred that most other African Americans endured in his time. Based on his spiritual background and influence of other artists, Tanner was able to pursue his dream of becoming the most famous African American artist in the 19th Century.
His crowning achievement was his oil on canvas painting, “The Banjo Lesson”. Born on June 21, 1859, just prior to the Civil War, in a house that was also used as an Underground Railroad station, Tanner was six years old when slavery was abolished in 1865. Tanner was raised by his father Benjamin Tucker and his mother Sarah Miller Tanner. They lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and attended African Methodist Episcopalian church. His father was a preacher at the church they attended. Henry’s mother was a former slave who was sent north through the Underground Railroad.Order now
Throughout Tanner’s teenage years, he saw painters working in a park near his home which inspired Tanner to become more of a painter. Tanner constantly drew and painted landscapes in his early years and made numerous trips to different art galleries. Tanner’s parents were very supportive of him and his parent’s encouraged him to continue to his passion of becoming a painter. During Tanner’s life, he was also experiencing health problems and his parents felt painting was a good tool of medicine. At the age of 20, Tanner became the first black student allowed to attend Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
During Tanner’s education, he continued to paint because he needed to support himself while in school. After graduating from Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Tanner began teaching at Clark College, in Atlanta, Georgia. Tanner’s close friend name Joseph C. Hartzell along side his father Joseph, helped and paid for Tanner’s first gallery. But no one bought Tanner’s paintings, so Tanner’s father and close friend bought all of his paintings. This lead Tanner to sell his gallery and Tanner pursued his interest in traveling the world.
In 1891, Tanner traveled and moved to Rome and then he also visited Paris. While in Paris, he saw the beauty in art and chose to further is art education there. This opportunity allowed Tanner to live and paint in a country where there were no racial barriers like in the United States, such as segregation. He then enrolled in the school there called “Academic Julian”. It was not long after this Tanner painted his one of his popular work called “The Banjo Lesson” of 1893 and the “Thankful Poor” of 1894. In 1899, Tanner married Jessie Olssen, a white opera singer from San Francisco, while living in Paris.
They had one child and permanently resided in France. During 1908, his first one-man painting exhibit was a series religious paintings back in the United States and held at the American Art Galleries in New York. Tanner continued to travel and he travel led him to Palestine to learn more about religious paintings. This lead to Tanner’s first opportunity of becoming the first African American to paint blacks serving in World War I, and also becoming the first black painter to have a painting hung on the wall of the White House Green Room.
This painting is called “The Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City”, 1885. Bit the painting I am eager to talk about is one of famous painting “The Banjo Lesson”, 1893, painted with oil on canvas (Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia). Tanner painting shows a little boy sitting on his grandfather’s lap playing a banjo. Immediately I was able to see the form and content of this painting. His painting can be valued in so many ways. Such as being formalism. Meaning this painting is truly beautiful. There is love between two people with a soft tone displayed in this painting.
The grandfather is given banjo lessons to his grandson who also shows a family togetherness and love. Tanner may have viewed this image of having a grandchild one day because I obtained a sense of personal culture in his painting. Tanner’s painting is a two dimensional painting with detailed images of everyday life. I see many brush strokes along with the colors used. Tanner painted his painting with black and gray oil colors. Tanner also used Chiaroscuro shading in this painting because the tones of the colors give the viewer a sense of calmness.
This gives a shade and balance with his tones. As for the lighting in the painting, there is a bright light beaming over the head of the grandfather, on the floor under the chair underneath the grandfather, and a reflection bouncing off of the table cloth behind the grandfather’s chair. This directional force leads viewer’s eyes toward the upper middle portion of the picture straight to the two individuals in the painting. Tanner’s work show him using his personal style and viewers are able to experience how Tanner’s life may have looked during the 19th Century.
Tanner also used unity and variety, such as the table being placed behind the grandfather chair, cooking tools along side on the floor, and also the way the floor slants downhill toward the viewer. The grandson in the painting waist is the vanishing point and there is also some emphasis there too. As I continued to view Tanner’s painting, I realize his painting was asymmetrical because they way the grandfather’s feet appeared unleveled. His feet were unbalanced and one of his knees appears higher than the other.
Tanner applied a lot of space in his painting to show or give the viewer a sense of the subjects sitting in a kitchen in a room of a house. As I continued to gather further visual thoughts, there was also an example of representational art used with a little of motion being applied because the grandson was playing the banjo. Tanner’s painting also has hatching brush strokes and it appears the painting was drawn first. His painting is very realistic and Tanner emphasis the use of portion with the two subjects, one person is bigger than the other.
This is found by the way the grandfather’s hands are a little bigger than normal size and you are able to sense a feeling of authority too. The Banjo Lesson mainly illustrates the importance of family. I can’t stop expressing this because a viewer and someone researching Tanner’s life is able to experience the life of this artist, his upbringing, his spiritual life, and viewers are able to see his love for people and family. There is a strong sense family togetherness in his painting.
As I stated previous on Tanner’s life, Tanner had a great relationship with his father who was the backbone of his career. As you read the life of Tanner, Tanner broke the racial barrier in the United States toward blacks in painting. He paved the way for other black painters because of the hard work and persistence. Most of all, he had a strong desire and passion to become a painter. Tanner also had several other paintings in other art galleries around the world, but there are were only a few which received world-wide recognition.
Therefore, it leads me to say, this was an important man who made a way for new black artist who were behind him. The self portrait of him shows confident in and persistence he carried within. We all know during Tanner’s day of time, it was not easy for African Americans to accomplish a career or obtain an education. However, Tanner showed grace, intelligence, and a strong determination to succeed. Which allowed him to not only overcome obstacles, but flourish in an era of history that swallowed up many of his would-be contemporaries.