This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.
Thomas Eakins was, with Winslow Homer, one of the foremost American artists to come of age artistically after the Civil War. He is characterized as a realist by art historians, and his work reveals a masterful observation of form, light and movement.
During the early years of his career, Eakins’ penetrating gaze was often attracted by the African-American residents of his native city of Philadelphia. Most of the resulting images represent black men in the milieu of white middle-class hunting activities, but in this large watercolor image of music-making, the attention of the artist focuses inward to capture the intimacy of an exclusively black experience.
The scene takes place in a bare interior, furnished only by a simple table, two chairs and a bench. In the foreground a seated young black man plays a banjo. His head inclines toward a much younger youth who follows the rhythm of the instrument, his knees bent and his feet raised on his toes. The gaze of the musician seems fixed on the feet of the dancing boy, who lifts his head to regard the older youth’s face. Between them stands an elderly black man, dressed rather formally in a vest and short jacket. On the chair near him are placed his top hat and cane. The man analyzes the boy’s performance with the practiced scrutiny of a dancing master. Although the name of at least one black person in another of the artist’s works from this period is known, the identities of these figures have not been established.
The impression of a humble domestic interior is actually a convincing fiction, the result of the artist’s exacting, carefully controlled working methods. The scene was arranged within a studio space located on the upper floor of Eakins’ paternal home. The bench and chairs are seen in other works by the artist, and it might be supposed that the professionally made, five-string banjo was also the property of the Eakins family.
Scenes of music-making blacks were the stock in trade of numerous American artists by this point. Rarely if ever had these been executed without a clear tone of condescension or outright racism. So different from these, The Dancing Lesson is also rather atypical of Eakins’ choice of subject matter and locale. It is one of only a few works in his oeuvre devoted entirely to an African-American theme, and unlike most of the others, it takes place in an interior.
The original title of the work, The Negroes, suggests the desire of the artist to broadly characterize an entire people in the form of a single paradigmatic image. Rather than rehearsing for a minstrel show, as some critics have suggested, the figures are engaged in a profoundly formative act of instruction, an almost ritual-like transmission of personal experience from one generation to the next. An amateur musician himself, Eakins could identify with his subjects through their actions. This close coincidence between life and art runs through a great deal of his work, including his other African-American subjects.
This view is reinforced by the diminutive reproduction on the wall at upper left of the well-known photograph, taken in Matthew Brady’s studio, of Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad examining a book. Eakins employs the motive to establish a link not only between the newfound freedom granted to blacks by the Great Emancipator, but also to comment on the bond of support and instruction that naturally existed between generations of all races. Through his use of this well-auguring image of Lincoln’s paternal guidance, Eakins also alludes, perhaps inadvertently, to the more troubling issues of class and race engaging the national consciousness in the wake of emancipation.
The musical theme of the picture directly engages the troubled issue of race perception in popular white imagination during the aftermath of the Civil War. The federal policy of Reconstruction, instituted immediately after the Civil War to foster the integration of freed slaves into the national polity, had been formally rescinded just the year before. The failure of the nation to fulfill its obligation to the former slaves followed closely upon the celebration of its centennial. Fortified with an idealistic view of the country's democratic values and beginning to move away from the traumatic experience of the Civil War, white Americans tended to gloss over problematic notions of race with the palliative fiction of the contented slave.
The watercolor was exhibited to general acclaim throughout the United States, both North and South, as well as abroad. Though genuinely expressed, praise for the work was inevitably compromised by the inability of most viewers to appreciate the real merits of the painting. Even Earl Shinn, a noted art critic and close companion of Eakins from their student days in Paris, could not escape the national reluctance to fully accept black citizens into the new order.
In a review of the work published in the Nation, Shinn asserted that the artist had evoked “[t]he comedy of plantation life … with a quiet intensity,” and further characterized the moment as one of “goblin humor.” For Shinn the word “comedy” is used to both legitimize and blunt the harsh routine of slave existence. More than a decade after the abolition of slavery in the United States, he fell back on an anachronistic interpretation of the subject, failing to grasp his friend’s capacity for the profoundly sympathetic observation of the human condition. Eakins, in fact, had stripped the theme of its burden of cultural prejudice to present a moment of concentrated engagement between music and dance in its raw, elemental form.
The brilliant African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, a pupil of Eakins who studied with him not long after this work was painted, later fashioned his own version of the black music-making theme. In The Banjo Lesson, an elderly man tenderly instructs a young boy, presumably his grandson, in the art of playing the instrument. As in Eakins’ painting, there is no hint of a performance to be made before an audience, only the earnest desire of one generation to transfer a significant cultural heritage to the next.
The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.
The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.