Judith Wilson


Henry O. Tanner's 1893 painting, The Banjo Lesson, marks a turning point in African American art history. It was Tanner's first masterpiece, the first work in which he demonstrated his control of a range of technical skills unmatched by any previous Black artist. For with Tanner we have the first Afro-American suited for greatness in the visual arts not only by talent and by temperament, but also by training. Indeed his study with the eminent American realist, Thomas Eakins, at the period's leading art school, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, provided him with the most advanced art education then available in the U.S. And subsequently, when a nine-year struggle to survive as an artist in his native land was ended by a generous pair of patrons who enabled him to go abroad, Tanner gained access to Europe's cultural resources an experience then considered indispensable, the final step in an American artist's training. Thus, Tanner probably was the first U.S. Black fully equipped to succeed as a painter in the western tradition.