But it is The Banjo Lesson that has become the iconic painting of his entire career. Its economy of scale, its emotional delicacy, its nuanced orchestration of light and shadow and symbolism situates it in a resonant space in American art history. Both The Banjo Lesson and The Thankful Poor were remarkable achievements for Tanner—works that according to the art historian Judith Wilson, “invest their ordinary, underprivileged, Black subjects with a degree of dignity and self-possession that seems extraordinary for the times in which they were painted.” It is a testament to Tanner’s vision as an artist, and his personal convictions as an African-American, amid the possibilities offered by twentieth century, that these two paintings continue to speak so profoundly to us now.
The minister already inwardly bears the community’s sin by listening to their confessions. It is possible that the minister chose to make the greatest sacrifice he could, by bearing the sins of the community in a visible way. In doing so, the community should have understood and appreciated his constant support and strength of faith. On the contrary, they gossiped about his sin as if it were greater than their own, and as if in seeing his outward expression of sin, they could overlook their internal crimes. In the end, the minister points out how all the townspeople have treated him poorly, neglecting their own sin and focusing on his. But, it seems that they never truly understood, or repented, their actions, as the story closes with the frightful thought that the minister’s face still lay behind the veil even in death.