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.

Why does Tanner insist on this narrow palette? First, the pervasive earth tones suggest that nearly every aspect of the man’s material situation is humble, rough, and undecorated. The floorboards and furnishings are unpainted and seemingly unfinished. The passages of bright color are few and do little more than suggest the play of the firelight. The few decorative items, chiefly the two pictures on the wall, are small and indistinct. This is a world of artless simplicity, poverty, and deprivation.

Second, the fact that the clothing matches the setting suggests that the figures are in some sense tied to this setting. This home seems to be a place of limitation rather than potential, and from its many shades of brown and gray we learn something about the figures inhabiting it. They’re poor, seemingly unrefined, and divorced by necessity from superfluous detail. For such people, in such circumstances, everything must be made to count.

Finally, the complexity of the earth tones within that limited range, and the difference in complexion between the man and the boy, suggests that all such associations are inexact. The boy is like the man, but not identical to him. The clothing’s coloring matches that of the setting, but not precisely and not simply. The people go with the place, but are not reducible to its rough and tumble.

Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, detail-brushwork

The painting’s facture reinforces the message of its color. On the one hand, Tanner describes the fire-lighted interior with broad, painterly brushstrokes that demonstrate his skill in suggestive representation. Those rapid, free brushstrokes not only constitute the illusion of a background and trappings, but also symbolize the quality of those elements. On the other hand, Tanner’s disciplined brush creates the figures’ faces with great sensitivity. These careful strokes that define the curve of a cheek or fold of an eyelid symbolize, as well as physically construct, the dignity and complexity of the human individuals and their bond. The man and boy echo their setting, but stand above and beyond its harsh and limited significance. Greater is the care that goes into the formation of a person.

Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893, detail-facesThe boy and man fill the picture’s center, and the firelight shines mainly on them. There’s no question that they’re the most important factors in the work, and that any claim about the work’s meaning must finally be a claim about these two figures and their relationship, as projected in this pictorial fiction. But what may we make of them, and what is the evidence that Tanner provides?

Taking color and brushwork into account provides a first pass at the formation of a thesis about how the painting generates meaning: physical characteristics of the painting suggest thematic claims that one may posit regarding its subject. A match among colors suggests an affinity of people and things. The degrees of descriptive precision suggest differences in importance. But color and brushwork take us only so far. Other details bring more substance to this link between form and meaning.

For example, consider the props that Tanner includes. He chooses to place a cabinet in the background. Over that cabinet, he drapes a bright cloth upon which stand a shallow bowl, a large pitcher, and a roughly described brown and white object. Is it a loaf of bread, which would suggest that the pitcher and bowl are dining equipment? Is it something unidentifiable, which would leave the other items free to represent equipment for cleaning in the absence of running water? Tanner doesn’t give enough detail to allow a clear assessment of the background. However, he gives enough to establish that pouring from and pouring into are behaviors definitely in play within the fiction, and are therefore possible themes of the painting.

Tanner reinforces this notion by providing another pair, a metal pitcher and a ceramic pot, on the floor near the fireplace. What purpose do the vessel and bowl on the counter in the background serve, if not to raise the question of why a similar vessel and receptacle stand in the foreground? Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893, detail-wares

The fictional setting provides one explanation. The fireplace is the hearth, and here the cooking is done. This explanation also accounts for the cast-iron frying pan lying nearby. But perhaps the meaning of these marks goes beyond a literal reading of the illusion. The empty pot stands ready to receive whatever the metal pitcher may pour. Similarly, the young boy stands ready to receive whatever the old man may share. The man, like the metal pitcher, is hardened but luminous and reflective; the boy, like the earthen vessel, is fragile and receptive. Into the boy the man pours knowledge of a skill, wisdom about the acquisition of that skill, insight into the value of that skill. For in some sense the boy is a version of the man, and though the latter has little of material worth to give, he is able to share at least two things, the first ephemeral and the second intangible. The first is music and the second is love.

Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893, detail-musicians

The cookware near the fire are like the man and boy. In that case, the unused frying pan is like the banjo. Their forms and positions are a visual rhyme. Just as the empty pan signals the possibility of a meal, but not its actuality, so the banjo signifies the boy’s potential, but not his present skill. Both banjo and pan underscore the old man’s skill at creating food, whether for mind or body. Just as food sustains the physical life of a person, so music perpetuates the cultural practices of a people.

Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson is about a transfer of lore from one generation to the next, but it has something to say about that lore. For it’s not just any craft that the elder passes to the younger, but the craft of making art of a particularly elusive form. Sound is physical; the ears receive it. But to find music in sound is to construct an elaborate abstraction in the hearing, with all the speed of sense and instinct. As they both gaze at the plucking fingers, the life of one person and that of another become, in one respect, a single life distributed across both. They’re united by the transmission of an artifactual form insusceptible to decay.

The art the man delivers, the skill he inculcates, is the careful fabrication of engaging abstractions. While worldly prospects fade, goods break apart, individuals age, and all such things pass away, some things endure. The things that endure are abstract, analogous to music that arrives, teases the ear, delights the mind, and then recedes into time and silence. What are these things? They’re told in the teacher’s embrace, in his patient care, in his considerate balance of precision and accommodation, and in the juxtaposition of two faces. They’re told in the instilling of values such as diligence and in the inducement to practices such as self-expression, rehearsal, spontaneity, and service. They’re told in the time not shown but surely given.

Tanner, The Banjo Lesson, 1893, detail-faces-focused

Through color and differentiated brushstrokes, positioning and scale, selective illumination of key figures, the ready symbolism of common objects, and some carefully wrought analogies, Tanner provides the evidence that this moment of teaching is a nourishment that transcends mere food, a giving that supersedes material wealth, and a sharing that bridges generations. In this way, his painting is not so much a meaning-machine as a musical instrument; its rhythms and intonations guide us through a time of viewing, from one iteration and phrase, one stroke of the brush, to its fellow, its child, its echo. In this way, by guiding us to see as he sees and showing us what to observe, Tanner does just what his protagonist would do.

6 thoughts on “Evidence in Art: Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson”

  1. i really like this piece i stuck out to me the most and the contrast of colors where great the way he used emphasis and and value were just great i really enjoy looking at this piece of art work..

  2. I have absolutely no understanding of art methods, etc. I have had a framed poster version of this painting as the focal art in every living room for almost 40 years. When I had studied and known it for years, the meaning for me finally formed into words.

    First, the concept that most defines my life is from T.H. White, The Once and Future King.

    "The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you."

    The painting reflects to me that regardless of race, age, socioeconomic status, etc., learning is a joy of being human that equals love. Music, of all the things we learn, holds a unique place in the human experience. So it inevitably follows that the other important human joy illustrated is teaching.

    The faces to me are what I think of with the quote about happiness is not something we really pursue/achieve very intentionally, it is more like a butterfly that comes and lands on our shoulders almost unnoticed.

    It was fascinating to read the artistic explanations for how those ideas were conveyed by Tanner. Very glad I found this, it is linked to in a blog comment I wrote to music teachers at Daily Kos.

  3. That is so beautiful. Thank you for illuminating this lovely image. You have taken it from, "That's nice." to "Wow!" for me.

  4. This is one of the greatest paintings of all time.
    This can rival any one of Leo Nardo Da Vinci paintings.
    I like this way better than any of his work.

  5. This is a nice insightful analysis of the The Banjo Lesson. Your assessment of the vessels seems spot on. This painting is rich with meaning. I created an ELA lesson plan here http://bit.ly/McQStudio23 that explores the paintings metaphors and philosophy of education that may interest you.

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