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The Art of JAMA
May 7, 2014

The Banjo LessonHenry Ossawa Tanner

JAMA. 2014;311(17):1714-1715. doi:10.1001/jama.2013.279474

Nineteenth-century sharecropper homes were one- or two-room cabins with a single window and a fireplace for heating and cooking. As in this painting, The Banjo Lesson, by the American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), the cabins were sparsely furnished and the walls were decorated with show bills or pictures torn out of a newspaper. Large families had to share these small spaces, but in the mild climate of the American South, they could spend some of their leisure time outdoors. On the occasion pictured here, empty pans and dishes tell that supper is over, and most of the family has gone outside to let the boy play his lesson for the banjo player. The boy, intent on his fingering, is comfortable in the man’s presence and might be his grandson. Firelight touches his face as the evening sun brightens the sideboard and backlights the banjo player’s head and shoulders. Where the light sources interact, they envelop and warm the alliance between student and teacher.

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