In 1893, Tanner painted this work while in Philadelphia, to which he had returned from Paris to recover from typhoid fever. The Banjo Lesson was one of two genre paintings Tanner produced at a time in which poor southern blacks, still scarred by slavery, are presented with unsentimental dignity. The reserve of Tanner’s subjects departs from the traditional image of the gregarious black performer. The Banjo Lesson was painted three years before the Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), during a period when whites were committing lynchings and other crimes of intimidation to reestablish racial separation in the South.
In this quiet scene a young boy is cradled in the arms of an older black man who holds up the neck of the banjo—an instrument too large for the boy to support. The boy tentatively strums the banjo with his awkwardly cocked right hand, while his left hand struggles with fingering. The two figures form a tight compositional and emotional unit, thoroughly absorbed in their world. They are situated in a simple, scrubbed domestic interior, the remains of a meal just eaten visible on the table in the background. An internal radiance sets off the massive dark brow and head of the man and illuminates the face of the young boy, a study in concentration. Knees spread wide, the man frames the boy in a metaphor of protection, tradition, and the bond furnished by music as it is passed from generation to generation. Tanner may have drawn this subject on travels to North Carolina before returning to Paris. As the art historian Judith Wilson has pointed out, Tanner transforms the conventional view of blacks as innately musical by emphasizing the role of teaching the transmission of black cultural forms. The young boy’s face is illuminated from the left, in a traditional metaphor of enlightenment. In their embrace of vernacular subjects, these works by Tanner look forward to twentieth-century black artists who explored the place of tradition in black cultural identity.
—Angela L. Miller, et al., American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity (2008)