If we substitute for a frog a "Mr. Goodwill" or a "Mr. Prudence," and for the scorpion "Mr. Treachery" or "Mr. Two-Face," and make the river any river and substitute for "We're both Arabs . . ." "We're both men . ." we turn the fable [which illustrates human tendencies by using animals as illustrative examples] into an allegory [a narrative in which each character and action has symbolic meaning]. On the other hand, if we turn the frog into a father and the scorpion into a son (boatman and passenger) and we have the son say "We're both sons of God, aren't we?", then we have a parable (if a rather cynical one) about the wickedness of human nature and the sin of parricide. (22)
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.