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May 03, 2020
For the Love of Music: A Comparison of Tanner and White

In this post, I want to compare two paintings from two different men, born in different times. Both paintings contain two people and in each, are two different instruments. The common thread - the love of music.

I started down this rabbit hole yesterday when I changed my profile picture on Duolingo. Yeah. Crazy. I know. Before, it was Charles White’s painting titled, “Love Letter III.” The change made me think back on the Charles White Retrospective exhibited at the Los Angeles Museum of Art and how one of the paintings, “Goodnight Irene,” made me think of my favorite work by Henry O. Tanner, “The Banjo Lesson.”

Let’s talk about “The Banjo Lesson” first. Why? Because it came first. It was created in 1893 and depicts an elderly man, presumably a grandfather, teaching a little boy to play a banjo. There is both weariness and patience in the man’s face while the boy’s body language expresses energy and curiosity.

The painting clearly demonstrates familial love. You can see this in the man’s leaning into the boy as he appears to be patiently listening, one hand on the frets. He is willing, despite his weariness, to give his time to help the little boy. It’s what you do when you love a child. Despite your fatigue, you scrape up energy you didn’t know you had to make them happy. The boy’s love can be interpreted by his body language, how close he wants to be to the man. It tells me that he has an immense trust and finds comfort in him.  

It’s not just familial love illustrated here. The fact that the elder is giving lessons, means he knows how to play. The interest in the instrument shows in the boy’s face and posture. The elder listens as the boy plays. This all leads us to believe that once upon a time, grandpa once had the curiosity and enthusiasm for this instrument that the boy now has. This excitement must come about, not from a love of the instrument by itself, but from the general love of music.

This love is also illustrated in White’s “Goodnight Irene.” This work, created in 1952, was inspired by the folk singer, Huddie Ledbetter (a.k.a Lead Belly), and the song with the same title. It was done two years after Ledbetter’s death and depicts Ledbetter sitting, singing and playing a guitar while a woman stands behind him, (presumably Ledbetter’s second wife, Martha Promise Ledbetter) listening with love and admiration.

The love of the romantic heart is clear as well, but only by the woman through her posture as she leans in to the back of his chair, eyes closed, lips in a content smile. The singer, is faced outward, so it is not clear if he is engaged with his listener or not. However, the fact that he is singing may (or may not) be an indication of his love of the attention he’s getting. He seems to love performing, though, even if it’s for himself.

Though the energy of the two works are very different, both demonstrate the love for music by the subjects. While Tanner’s work speaks to familial love, White’s speaks of romantic love. Also, I’d argue that “Goodnight Irene” is slightly more complex conceptually because we don’t really know where the singer’s head is, except on his music and performance. Despite this complexity, visually, “The Banjo Lesson” still stands as my favorite.

"Goodnight Irene" by Charles White

"The Banjo Lesson" by Henry O. Tanner
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