Learning from the Masters: Dennis K. Smith and Henry Ossawa Tanner
“I will preach with my brush,” -Henry Ossawa Tanner
A careful observer might have noticed two paintings by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937) in Art Windsor-Essex’s recent exhibition, The Black Artists Collective: Abstracted Realities. Of course, Tanner died over seventy years before The Black Artists Collective (TBAC) formed in 2008, but his influence on one TAOC member remains foundational.
“I want to gain a deeper connection with the works of Black artists who have finally received their deserved appreciation,” Dennis K. Smith notes of his motivation in including Tanner’s work in two of his paintings, The Songbird and Studying the Masters. Tanner was one of the first African American artists to gain international critical acclaim, although Tanner — like Edmonia Lewis and other Black artists of that period — had to leave the United States to achieve these successes.
In Studying the Masters, we can see five historical paintings, including St. Peter’s Square (1741) by Italian artist Giovanni Paolo Panini and Road from Market (1767–1768) by British artist Thomas Gainsborough. However, the work that captures both our attention, and the attention of this painting’s subject, is The Banjo Lesson (1893) by Tanner. The work was made after Tanner traveled to the Appalachian region of North Carolina while he recovered from Typhoid fever. It movingly depicts an elderly man teaching a young boy the banjo who is, in essence, learning from a master.
Smith is both a musician and an artist, who learned to play the piano from his mother and the art of storytelling from his father. Like Tanner before him, whose father was an abolitionist bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Smith’s father was a minister. Smith’s love of the arts and his passionate commitment to storytelling are traits that were encouraged and developed by his family and by his teachers, who fostered these skills as carefully as the elderly man teaches the young boy The Banjo Lesson. However, while Smith likely encountered the work of Tanner during his childhood due to Tanner’s popular illustrations of biblical scenes, Smith noted that he didn’t realize that Tanner was a Black artist, with a life story very much like his own.
Painting the Masters was finished twice. Smith writes:
The original title for this painting was Viewing the Art. The three people depicted in both earlier and final versions were fellow artists Trudy Dempsey, Jeffery Wyatt, and Lois Smith Larkin. I placed Lois into the image because I wanted her to be the figure that would allow the viewer to be drawn to my focus, which would be the painting of The Banjo Lesson by Henry O. Tanner.
On the rear wall the paintings St Peter’s Square by Italian artist Giovanni Paolo Panini and Road from Market by Thomas Gainsborough along with others I could not recognize from my poor reference images. I found the works of these artists remarkable but experienced a disconnect. Although their narratives were captivating, and very well executed, they weren’t reflecting my experiences or realities.
At mid-completion of Viewing the Art, I became discontented with my composition. The positioning of Lois in the painting didn’t have her viewing Tanner’s painting but looking off. This was the last thing I wanted the viewer to do, which was what Henry Tanner had experienced his whole life as an artist. Within his adopted country of Paris, Tanner had been accepted and credited as an accomplished artist, but in America, his home country, his art was avoided and ignored because of his colour.
With Lois facing away from the painting your eye would follow her gaze and leave the canvas.
I later would insert myself into this painting in my smock with my brush in hand studying Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson. I wanted the viewer to join me as we study Tanner’s work. The name was changed to Studying the Masters.
When we look at the completed version of Studying the Masters, we see how carefully Smith observes Tanner’s painting. He is dressed for working in a studio, not dressed for visiting a museum, in his painter’s smock and holding a paintbrush. Smith, a master storyteller, isn’t depicting a casual trip to the museum. Instead, Smith is showing us how central intergenerational teachings are to his artistic practice. He is not viewing this painting, as his first title suggests. Instead, he is learning from it. What Smith shows us from this encounter is how important it is for artists of all ages to see their own experiences reflected on museum walls, and how these encounters can continue to inspire us to make more and better work.
Art Windsor-Essex is very lucky to hold this painting in our collection, and we look forward to putting it on view. We are confident that this painting will provide the opportunity for many visitors to continue to study from the masters for many years to come.