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Strokes of a Genius

Hill District native Henry Ossawa Tanner's paintings are displayed in the White House and locally at Carnegie Museum of Art.



Henry Ossawa Tanner's "The Banjo Lesson"

Celebrate African-American History Month with a trip to the Carnegie in Oakland to view paintings by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), one of America’s first highly acclaimed black painters.

Tanner was born in the Hill District to Benjamin Tucker, a Methodist Episcopal minister, and Sarah Tanner, a runaway slave. When he was 20, Tanner enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, which was pioneering a realistic approach in American art.

Although he is most famous for “The Banjo Lesson,” a painting of an elderly black musician teaching a small boy to strum a banjo, which is now on display at Hampton University Museum, Tanner made relatively few works depicting the African-American experience. More typical are landscape scenes, such as “Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City,” which hangs in the White House.

Tanner also created many religious-themed paintings, including “Christ at Home of Mary and Martha,” which is on display at Carnegie Museum of Art and is an example of Tanner’s ability to combine the sacred and the ordinary. (Carnegie Museum of Art, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. Tues.–Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sun., noon-5 p.m. $15; seniors, $12; students and children, $11; members and children under 3, free. Info: cmoa.org)

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