The Banjo and the Bible

Henry Ossawa Tanner (b. 1859), like many men in the 19th century, had a Bible, and a banjo. But he also had an artist’s eye, a profound love for both the bible and the banjo, and the magic ability to depict them in oils. As a result, he was the first Black American to become internationally renowned as an artist.

Tanner, who was born in Pittsburgh, PA, was inspired to try his hand at painting at the age of 13 after watching another artist create a painting. He was good enough at it that at the age of 20, he became only the second African American to enroll in the prestigious Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Fascinated by photography, he became a photographer for a while, but while traveling in Europe to continue his art studies, he contracted typhoid fever while studying at the Académie Julien. He moved back to France, this time for good, in 1894.

While Tanner was best known for his pieces depicting scenes from the Bible ("The Raising of Lazarus" 1896; "The Annunciation", 1898; "Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds", 1910) his most famous work is "The Banjo Lesson (1893), a deceptively simple painting of an old black man teaching a child to play the banjo, which showed the efforts to bridge the differences, not only between generations, but between cultures.

Tanner studied with Thomas Askins at the Academy of Fine Arts, and the influence of  Eakins can be seen in his work, particularly "Interior with Woman Spinning"

The French government gave Tanner the Legion of Honor in 1923, and he was elected to full membership in New York’s National Academy of Design in 1927. He died in 1937.

One of his paintings, "Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City", hangs in the White House. It is the first work by an African-American to be so honored.

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