Henry Osawa Tanner returned to Philadelphia from Europe in the summer of 1893 to recover from a case of typhoid fever. In August of that year he delivered a paper at the World’s Congress on Africa, part of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago on “The American Negro in Art”. This paper along with his acquaintance with American racism probably inspired the artist to begin painting African American subject matter. This is indicated further in a statement written by Tanner in third person:
Since his return from Europe he has painted many Negro subjects, he feels drawn to such subjects on account of the newness of the field and because of a desire to represent the serious and pathetic side of life among them, and it is his thought that other things being equal, he who has most sympathy with his subject will obtain the best results. To his mind, many of the artists who have represented Negro life have only the comic, the ludicrous side of it and have lacked sympathy with and affection for the warm big heart within such a rough exterior.
Tanner may have been thinking about the work of such artists as John Lewis Krimmel, sometimes called “the American Hogarth” and the early efforts of American genre painter Eastman Johnson.
How does Tanner’s painting differ from the work of artists who only saw the “comic” or “ludicrous” side of Black Americans? While Johnson drew on the genre scenes of peasant life presented by seventeenth century Dutch painters, Tanner looked to Rembrandt Van Rijn, another seventeenth century Dutch artist, for inspiration. Adopting Rembrandt’s looser brushwork and paring down the objects in the painting, Tanner forces the viewer to concentrate on the two figures and what they are doing, as opposed to their physical appearance. Tanner also adopted Rembrandt’s use of golden light entering from the side which highlights the faces and sharpens the outlines of the figures against the backdrop and adds a sense of solemnity and religiosity to the scene. The sense of devotion presented here is focused on the lives of African Americans while also showing deep respect for the poor in general.
Tanner portrays the grandfather and grandson in The Banjo Lesson as two distinct figures absorbed in the task at hand. The banjo becomes a conduit between generations. It also represents a bridge between Africa and America, for the banjo is descendant from several stringed instruments brought over from Africa.
Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson was exhibited in October 1893 at Earle’s Galleries in Philadelphia and in 1894 at the annual Paris salon. It was purchased by Robert C. Ogden, a promoter of African American education who in November 1894 donated the painting to the Hampton Institute, a school dedicated to the education of Black and Native American children.