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Evidence in Art: Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893
Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson, oil on canvas, 1893, may be seen at the Hampton University Museum in Hampton, Virginia.

Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson presents a memorable and moving scene: light from an unseen fireplace spreads leftward across a ramshackle interior where an old man transmits to his young pupil a bit of musical lore, a rudiment of learning, a measure of possibility. Materially, the painting consists of some oil-based pigments smeared purposively onto a rectangle of canvas. When it comes to interpretation, we grasp the artist’s pictorial illusion without difficulty and quickly begin to ponder themes that the illusion seems to address: paternal affection, the ages of man, the passing of knowledge from one generation to the next, the appreciation of values not rooted in material wealth, the bittersweet blessing of joy in the midst of deprivation, and perhaps others.

What is the relationship between the set of material facts about the painting– how it actually looks as a paint-smeared stretch of fabric– and the set of claims we might reasonably make about its meaning? How does Tanner’s painting work as a meaning-making machine?

The painting is nearly monochromatic. Earth tones define the planks of the floor, the chair on the left, the coat draped over that chair, the rear wall and cabinet, the old man’s shirt, trousers, and shoes, the boy’s shirt and shorts, and of course the ash-black complexion of the old man and the golden brown hues of his pupil. The only colors breaking this homogeneity are the yellow rags and blue shadows in the background.

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