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Hale Woodruff, The Banjo Player

Please note, this video includes historical images that are racist.
Hale Woodruff, The Banjo Player, 1929, oil on canvas, 60.33 × 73.03 cm (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts), a Seeing America video. Speakers: Dr. Leo G. Mazow, Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Curator of American Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Dr. Beth Harris.
Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(upbeat piano music) - [Beth] We're in the galleries at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and we're looking at a 1929 painting by the American artist Hale Woodruff. This is called, not surprisingly, "The Banjo Player." - [Leo] Let's face it, this is a heck of a painting. It has the impasto, the laying out from the tube, with scumbling, and this is just a clinic in different types of applications of paint. This is a guy who's literally on the edge of his seat, playing a song, smiling, not even looking at the fingerboard as he plays. Granted, it is likely an American banjo, but it hails from West Africa, Senegal, and Gambia. - [Beth] And we can see the hand moving on the strings, we can almost hear the banjo music. To me, there's such joy in the expression of this figure. - [Leo] He's rocking back and forth. He has an open mouth, he's either speaking or singing, and I really believe that he wants to give the activity, the experience of playing music. Look how close he is to the foreground. - [Beth] And not only is he very close to us, but the background is very flat, looking back to Matisse and Picasso and the tradition of painting. It's remarkable for a work so early in his career. - [Leo] I also think that the background evokes the portraits of famous modernist authors and artists by Man Ray and Carl van Vechten. - [Beth] But it is hard to get away from the stereotyped image of an African-American man playing the banjo. - [Leo] The negative stereotypes that have come down to us, they are perpetuated by things like Currier & Ives, who rightfully billed themselves as the printmakers to the American people. They're horrifically odious, to say the least, but also well into the late 19th and early 20th century, we see these visual tropes of the well-behaving, hushed by his music, tamed by his banjo symbolism on sheet music covers, and it's not a stretch to think that he would know about the vast visual tradition that's more than in the air. It's on paper, for him and all to see. And in minstrelsy, in which you have typically white men blackening up their face with burnt cork, you have a wholesale appropriation and parody of all things African. Minstrelsy suggested physical and moral degeneracy, silliness at all costs. - [Beth] But here's such a serious painting by a young artist, and he's in Paris when he paints this and he's there with Henry Osawa Tanner. - [Leo] He does spend time with Tanner, and I do not think it's any stretch that he and any painter, Anglo-American or African-American, when they think of banjos, they're gonna think of Henry Tanner's, not only because of its critical acclaim, but also because that work is reproduced in publications printed by Harper & Brothers. - [Beth] It's interesting to me that in the Tanner, we see the banjo player with someone else, but here we see him alone. - [Leo] Probably starting with William Sidney Mount's "Banjo Player," we see the beginning of a tradition that flies in the face of the degrading stereotypes in which racism is carried by performing for others. I think here you have an individual as the agent of his own sound. It is very difficult not to read into that. When I first looked at this, I had a lot of questions. I still have a lot of questions. - [Beth] My mind went to those racist images. And then I thought, well, here's Hale Woodruff doing this. What's going on in 1929? And clearly what the banjo meant in 1929 for Woodruff, I think is different than the baggage that I carry around about an African-American playing a banjo. - [Leo] Racist tropes are aplenty, sonically and visually by this time. How then, can we explain an African-American artist who was, in fact, painting an African-American playing the banjo? - [Beth] It's exactly this ambiguity that drew me to this painting. - [Leo] You know, sound is a fleeting thing. How do you capture that? I believe that Woodruff is drawing a parallel between the hand that plays the banjo and the hand that paints the work. This is a confident musician painted by a confident artist. (upbeat piano music)