key words

Masterpiece: The Banjo Lesson, 1893
by Henry Ossawa Tanner
Keywords: Mood, Subject, Light
and Composition,
3rd Grade
Family Traditions
Meet the Artist:
 Henry Ossawa Tanner was
born in 1859 in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania. His father was a
minister in the African
Methodist Church which
influenced his later paintings
of religious subjects.
 He was an African American
artist best known for his
paintings of religious subjects,
genre scenes and portraits
and was the first African
American artist to gain
international acclaim.
 At the age of 21, Tanner enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine
Arts in Philadelphia at a time when new methods of drawing the weight and
structure of the human figure were developing such as using live models,
open discussion of the male and female anatomy and dissections of cadavers
to understand the human body.
 Although Tanner was extremely successful at the Academy and as an artist,
he was not fully accepted in the art world as racism was a prevalent
condition in Philadelphia.
 In late 1891, Tanner left America for France and except for occasional brief
returns home; he would spend the rest of his life there. He died in Paris in
 On one of his short trips home, he painted his most famous work, The Banjo
Lesson which depicts an elderly black man teaching what is assumed to be his
grandson how to play the banjo. What set this portrait apart from other
images of black musicians by other artists of the time is that Tanner
skillfully portrays the people as real and not caricatures. Additionally he
portrays a specific moment of human interaction that focuses on the sense
of real contact, cooperation and concentration.
Tanner is often regarded as a realist painter meaning that he focused on
accurate depictions of subjects as well as lighting to unite real space and
atmosphere with emotion and mood.
Another painting, Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City (c.1885) is the first
painting by an African American artist to enter the permanent collection of
the White House.
Composition – is the placement, organization or arrangement of the visual elements
or feature in a work of art that is distinct from the subject. See Below for
Subject – There is no question that the boy and the man are the most important
factors in this work. Tanner uses remarkable detail and sensitivity to each of the
character’s faces to direct the viewer to the mood and meaning of their
relationship. Notice the careful strokes that define the curve of a cheek or fold of
an eyelid, the wrinkles in the man’s hands, and the smoothness of the boy’s hands.
Notice how the colors and images surrounding the boy and man are soft, as though
they are far away or not important. The artist intentionally constructs this to
depict the dignity and complexity of the human individuals and their bond.
Mood – is the general atmosphere, or state of mind and feelings, that a work of art
generates. For example, the mood of a painting could be disturbing or tranquil, dark
or energetic. In this painting, Tanner describes the fire-lighted interior with
broad, loose brushstrokes using warm shades of yellow, brown and gray to give the
scene a feeling of warmth. He paints gentle light shining on both the faces from
two different light sources; the hearth and a discreet window on the left. The man
and boy sit close together, in a comfortable position. They are sitting in a simple
room with very little furniture, belongings, and a bare floor. The artist has used all
these things to create a mood of simple, peaceful companionship.
Demonstration on Composition – to help the students really see the idea of how an
artist COMPOSES a painting try taking 5 children to the front of the class and
have one or two student(s) stand directly in the front and remainder stand in the
back surrounding the front student(s). Have the background students pose in
various positions. (i.e. kneeling, arms or knees up in air, facing opposite direction) to
give a frame to the front student(s). Talk about how we can still see all 5
students, but the front student(s) is/are the most dominant and while the other
students can still be seen, they are secondary to the overall picture and are
organized to add interest or composition.
Possible Questions:
 Who are the people in this painting?
 How do you think they feel about each other? They love each other.
 How does the artist tell us they feel this way about one another? The boy is
sitting on the man’s lap; the man has his arms around the boy; the
expressions on their faces show their respect for each other and love of
 What can you guess about the lives of these two people? They are not rich;
they love each other.)
 What do you think about when you look at this painting?
 Are they poor or wealthy? What items tell you that?
 What are the colors that you see? Are they mostly cool colors or warm?
 Where is the light coming from? (The figures are illuminated by two
separate and varying light sources; a natural white/blue glow from an outside
window is on the left while the warm light from a fireplace is apparent on
the right.)
 How does this painting make you feel?
Activity (about 30 minutes): Family Traditions
Materials needed: 9”x12” heavy white construction paper, Earthtone Oil Pastels,
Chalk, hairspray to set the chalk.
1. Have the students take a moment to think about a very special time with a
very special adult. Encourage them to think of a time when they felt very
happy, thankful, or learned something new. They could be within an indoor or
outdoor setting and should include the props. Remind them about
COMPOSITION or placement of the people and their respective props. How
are they feeling about each other….what is the overall MOOD of their
2. Ask the student to think about the time of day and where the LIGHT is
coming from. (i.e. the sun – sunrise (cool colors) or sunset (warm colors), a
fireplace, a window, flashlight, etc.).
3. Give each student a piece of construction paper and box of oil pastels.
4. Ask the student to draw themselves with their special adult -doing their
special thing- very large and near the center of the paper so it becomes the
main SUBJECT. Encourage them to use lots of details in their facial
expression, clothes, etc.
5. Once they finish their subject, pass out the chalk and have them fill in the
surrounding areas with other things that contribute to scene…..but in less
detail. This can be done using quick, broad stokes with the chalk. As they
draw, reiterate the concepts of COMPOSITION. Also, remind them on how
the colors used will set the MOOD of their piece and may not have to be
6. When finished with the chalk, lightly spray it with hair spray to hold the
chalk in place.
7. Make sure they sign the back of their piece.
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