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


Hale Woodruff, Banjo Player

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Key Points

  • The banjo and the image of the banjo player are inextricably linked to African American history. The banjo is a westernized version of a gourd instrument from West Africa.
  • The figure of the Black banjo player proliferated as a racist stereotype in popular imagery and minstrelsy throughout the antebellum period and well into the Jim Crow era. Paintings like The Banjo Player, however, served to counter such demeaning portrayals and reframe Black representation by celebrating the musician as both dignified and accomplished. 
  • The Banjo Player displays the exceptional talents of a young Hale Woodruff, working in Paris at the time and influenced by the work of Paul Cézanne as well as cubism and photographic portraiture. 

Go Deeper

Learn more about Hale Woodruff

Learn about Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Banjo Lesson (1893)

Leo G. Mazow, ed. Picturing the Banjo (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2006)

Laurent Dubois, The Banjo (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016)

More to Think About

Look closely at the painting and explore the brushstrokes, colors, and forms of the composition. How does the style and quality of the painting contribute to the characterization of this banjo player?

Can you think of other examples of visual artists from marginalized communities reclaiming their representation through their imagery? How did they accomplish this? Share and discuss your answers with the class.

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”HaleBanjo,”]

More Smarthistory images…

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.