I was wondering about the first known African-American artist and about the representation of Blacks in American art. I was wondering if the two might even be related – from whose point of view were we seeing Blacks in American art – and did the representation change once African-American artists started painting?
The Turning Point
Trained in both Philadelphia and Paris, Henry O. Tanner’s (1859 – 1937) iconic The Banjo Lesson, 1839 became the breakthrough painting that unshackled African-American art and the representation of African-Americans in art from the ties of White America and its artists. This incredibly tender and soulful painting of a grandfather teaching his grandson to play the symbolic banjo became the “image of generational torch-passing,” (Farisa Khalid, smarthistory).
Here, finally we have agency – an African-American artist, painting something he could have seen reflected in a mirror.
Sitting in their humble abode, with the light finally focused on them, the “grandfather is the past, the old America of slavery and The Civil War, of oppression, racism, and poverty, while the boy, caught in the warm glow of the fire’s light, is the New America, of renewed opportunities, advancement, education, and new beginnings” (Farisa Khalid, smarthistory).