In 1879, he enrolled to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He was the only black student and became a favorite of the painter Thomas Eakins, who had recently started teaching there. He also made other connections among artists, including Robert Henri. In the late 1890s he was sponsored for a trip to Palestine by Rodman Wanamaker, who was impressed by his paintings of Biblical themes.
|Gateway to Morocco|
It was his painting, "The Banjo Lesson, "that turned out to be not only popular but very radical for the time. The painting shows an elderly black man teaching a boy, assumed to be his grandson, how to play the banjo.
This deceptively simple-looking work explores several important themes. Blacks had long been stereotyped as entertainers in American culture, and the image of a black man playing the banjo appears throughout American art of the late 19th century.
Previous paintings reduced blacks to a ministrel stereotype. Tanner's painting is sensitive and emotional, showing a respect for the subjects combined with painterly skill.
Tanner undertakes the difficult endeavor of portraying two separate and varying light sources. A natural white, blue glow from outside enters from the left while the warm light from a fireplace is apparent on the right. The figures are illuminated where the two light sources meet; some have hypothesized this as a manifestation of Tanner’s situation in transition between two worlds, his American past and his newfound home in France.
He moved to Paris in 1891 to study, and spent the rest of his life there, being readily accepted in French artistic circles
In his autobiography The Story of an Artist’s Life, Tanner describes the burden of racism:
I was extremely timid and to be made to feel that I was not wanted, although in a place where I had every right to be, even months afterwards caused me sometimes weeks of pain. Every time any one of these disagreeable incidents came into my mind, my heart sank, and I was anew tortured by the thought of what I had endured, almost as much as the incident itself.
|The Flight to Egypt|
|Daniel in the Lion's Den|