Henry Ossawa Tanner

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Henry Ossawa Tarner was an American painter who lived between the years 1859 and 1937. His early paintings were associated with African Americans. In one of his most popular paintings, ‘The Banjo Lesson’, he depicts an older man training a boy on how to play the banjo.

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This painting was created in 1893 when he was calling on his family in Philadelphia. He created another great painting in the year that followed. This painting was known as ‘The thankful poor.’ He became a successful painter in the 19th century and gained admiration from both Americans and Europeans. It was in this century that he created another famous painting known as ‘Nicodemus Visiting Jesus’. This was an oil painting which had a biblical theme and led Tarner to win the Lippincott prize of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Even with the change of focus in his painting to biblical and religious themes, he was still a celebrated painter who was showered with praise and honor. In this essay, I will compare and contrast the use of color in his paintings, ‘The Banjo Lesson’, ‘The Young Sabot Maker’ and ‘The Two Disciples at the Tomb’.

The Banjo Lesson is one of the most famous paintings of Henry Ossawa Tarner. In the painting, a boy is being shown how to play the banjo by an older man. The surrounding is a log cabin and there seems to be a glow from the right corner of the painting which represents a source of light. The boy uses both of his hands to hold the banjo as he gazes downwards which a reflection of his complete concentration on the instructions is being given by the older man. The man helps in supporting the banjo by gently holding it with his left hand so that the boy is not overwhelmed by its weight.

The staging of the painting depicts the idea that the man wants the boy to learn to play the instrument and reap the rewards of this through hardwork.

The Banjo Lesson, Henry Ossawa Tarner. Oil painting. The Hampton University Museum in Virginia.

Tanner uses a narrow palette in this painting. The painting is almost fully monochromatic. Earth tones are prominent in the painting and are seen in the floor planks, the wall and cabinet in the back, the chair and the coat that rests limply on it, the man’s clothes and the boy’s pants and shirt. The earth tones are also seen in the man’s complexion and the brown color of his pupil. The break away from this uniformity is brought about by the background with its blue shadows and yellow cloth. The earth tones suggest humility and plainness. The furniture in the painting appears rough and unfinished. There are only a few bright colors which represent the light from the fire.

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