Robert S. Duncanson (1821–1872)

A notable nineteenth-century American landscape artist

By Chelsea DeLay

Robert Seldon Duncanson was a self-taught, African-American artist who successfully established an artistic career during the Civil War. Known primarily for his colorful landscape paintings, Duncanson drew inspiration from the Hudson River School and English literature. As a result, his works depict a clear fusion of literary anecdotes with a perceptive take on nature.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Suggested Resources
VII. Notes

I. Biography

Robert Seldon Duncanson was born in the Finger Lakes region of New York to a poor family of free African-American tradesmen.[1] Soon after his birth, his parents relocated to the town of Monroe on the western coast of Lake Erie, in territory that would later become Michigan. There, he and his brothers were apprenticed in the family trades of housepainting, decorating, and carpentry. In 1841, Duncanson returned to the United States with his mother, moving to the small town of Mount Holy, Ohio.[2] Duncanson’s close proximity to Cincinnati, a home to the Hudson River School movement, instilled in him an appreciation of pastoral landscapes and realism.

Duncanson’s approach of integrating the stylistic elements of the Hudson River School with his knowledge of literature continuously developed throughout his career.[3] In 1848, Duncanson received his first important commission from Nicholas Longworth, which was a series of pastoral murals rendered in pastel tones that demonstrated his awareness of luminist landscape painting.[4]

Even when he strayed from traditional landscape scenes, the influence of literature on Duncanson’s style was clear. Tom and Little Eva (1853, Detroit Institute of Arts) was his only piece that focused on a literary subject with an overtly racial theme. Duncanson drew figural inspiration directly from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in this scene of Uncle Tom holding hands with Eva, his master’s daughter.[5] Duncanson’s choice of depicting a pivotal scene illustrating the theme of sacrificial love and saving grace reiterated his hopeful attitude for a society free from slavery.[6]

Throughout the late 1850s and into the 1860s, Duncanson made several trips to Europe where he was exposed to English literature and landscape artists. In 1861, Duncanson painted Land of the Lotos Eaters (Swedish Royal Collection, Stockholm), which was based on Lord Alfred Tennyson’s The Lotos Eaters. Finding its roots in Homer’s Odyssey, this poem describes when Odysseus and his mariners become lost at sea and seek refuge on a mysterious island. Upon the mariners arrival, the men are greeted by natives who offer the lotos flower and fruit as a meal. The men who choose to eat it are lulled into an altered state of mind; they begin to question the sufferings of mankind and resolve that it would be better to remain on the island, carefree and in isolation, rather than to face the tribulations of returning to Ithaca. To highlight the characteristic motifs of Duncanson’s landscapes, Land of the Lotos Eaters demonstrates an aptitude for compositional balance, a distant mountain vista, and a stream spilling out into the spectator’s space.[7]

In 1864, Duncanson left Cincinnati and relocated to Montreal, possibly as a result of racial tensions stemming from the Civil War. The two-year stay in Canada proved advantageous for Duncanson’s career, with reports stating, “…his color did not prevent his association with other artists and his entrance into good society.”[8] During his time in Montreal, Duncanson created several pieces that exercised a tonal realism that was at the time popular in Canadian landscape photography. The success of his works consequently led to Duncanson gaining representation by art dealer A.J. Pell in 1864, in addition to being invited to exhibit at both the 1864 and 1865 Conversaziones of the Art Association of Montreal.[9]

II. Chronology

1821 Born in Seneca County, New York
1841 Moved to Mount Healthy, Ohio
1842 First exhibition with the Western Arts Association in Cincinnati
1848–50 Commissioned by Nicholas Longworth to paint a series of murals
1853 Painted Tom and Little Eva
Traveled to Italy with William Sonntag
1861 Painted Land of the Lotos Eaters
1862 Moved to Montreal, Canada
1864 Agreed to be represented by dealer A.J. Pell
1865–67 Traveled to Britain, Ireland, and Scotland
1870–71 Traveled to Scotland
1872 Suffered a mental breakdown during the summer, passed away in September in Detroit, Michigan

III. Collections

Amherst College, MA
Balmoral Castle, Scotland
Boston Museum of Fine Art, MA
Butler Institute of American Art, OH
California African American Museum, CA
Cincinnati Art Museum, OH
Detroit Historical Museum, MI
Detroit Institute of Art, MI
Greenville Museum of Art, SC
High Museum of Art, GA
The Collection of H.R.H., the King of Sweden, Sweden
Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Canada
National Gallery of Canada, Canada
North Carolina Museum of Art, NC
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Ohio Historical Society, OH
Ohio Military Institute, OH
Ohio Mechanics Institute, OH
Quebec Museum of Arts, Canada
St. Louis Art Museum, MO
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
Taft Museum of Art, OH
Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, CT
Wilburforce University, OH

IV. Exhibitions

1842–3, 1861 Western Art Union
1849 Michigan State Fair
1850 AAU
1852 Gallery of Fine Arts, Detroit
1864–65, 1870 Art Association of Montreal
1865 Dublin Exhibition
1871 Western Art Association
1875–76 Detroit Art Association
1972 Cincinnati Art Museum (Centennial Exhibition)
2011 Thomas Cole National Site, NY

V. Memberships

Cincinnati Artists Association
Cincinnati Sketch Club

VI. Suggested Resources

Romare Bearden & Harry Henderson, A History of African-American Artists from 1792 to the Present (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993): 19–39.
Joseph D. Ketner, The Emergence of the African American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson, 1821-1872 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993)
Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, American Paintings before 1945 in the Wadswoth Atheneum (Hartford, CT: Yale University Press,1996): 309–311.
Lucinda Moore, America’s Forgotten Landscape Painter: Robert S. Duncanson, Smithsonian.com, accessed April 30, 2012, last modified October 19, 2011, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/Americas-Forgotten-Landscape-Painter-Robert-Duncanson.html?c=y&page=1.

VII. Notes

1. Joseph D. Ketner, The Emergence of the African-American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson 1821-1872 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993), 2
2. Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art: Artists Active between 1898 and 1947 (Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1999), 980.
3. Joseph Ketner “Robert S. Duncanson (1821–1872): The Late Literary Paintings” in The American Art Journal, vol. 15, no. 1 (Winter 1983): 35.
4. Ibid, 39.
5. Norman L. Kleeblat, “Master Narratives of Minority Artists” in Art Journal 57 (Autumn 1998): 32.
6. Ketner, The Emergence of the African-American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson 1821-1872, 4.
7. Ketner, "Robert S. Duncanson (1821–1872): The Late Literary Paintings", 43.
8. Ibid, 38.
9. Allan Pringle, “Robert S. Duncanson in Monteral, 1863-65” in American Art Journal 17 (Autumn 1985): 36.

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