Robert S. DuncansonSep 3rd, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Painting & Sculpture
1821?-1872 Robert Scott Duncanson was an African American artist noted for his landscapes, murals, and portraits. Touted at one point as the “best landscape painter in the West,” he was the first black artist to receive international recognition for his self-taught works.
An Ambitious Artist
Duncanson was born sometime in 1821 in Seneca County, in upstate New York. His mother, Lucy Nickles, was a free African American from Cincinnati, Ohio, and his father, John Dean Duncanson, from Virginia, was of African and Scottish descent. Duncanson’s youth was spent largely in Canada until his father, a skilled carpenter and housepainter, decided to take his trade to the rapidly growing town of Monroe, Michigan. It was through the family business that Duncanson received his introduction to painting, carefully assisting with work on ornate trim and signs. By age 17, he had his own business, specializing in painting and glazing window trim.
The life of a tradesman left Duncanson restless, however; he longed to paint landscapes rather than houses. In the early 1840s, he moved to Mt. Healthy, a small but thriving neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio, which served as a center of culture and abolitionist sentiment among free Blacks. Duncanson began pursuing life as an artist by copying popular art prints, and soon moved on to original portraiture. He also worked in photography, using the daguerreotype printing process. But Duncanson found his true skill in painting the region’s landscapes. The Ohio River Valley served as Duncanson’s focus, and by 1842, his paintings were being exhibited in the Cincinnati area. He modeled his works after the Hudson River School painters in the sense that he strove for romantic, untarnished images of America’s natural landscapes. Soft muted tones were used to portray wilderness scenes and literary elements were often infused into the paintings.
Cincinnati provided the ideal setting for Duncanson’s works, and he found tremendous support from both black and white abolitionists whom he depicted in portraits. The city was a thriving hub of artistic expression, and by 1844, Duncanson’s significance was becoming recognized by critics and publications. Duncanson’s first significant work from the era, Cliff Mine, Lake Superior, executed in 1848, was commissioned by abolitionist clergyman Charles Avery. The work, alongside a famous painting called Blue Hole, Flood Waters, Little Miami River, done a few years later, solidified his status as one of the region’s most important painters.
Another abolitionist, the art patron and wealthy Cincinnati landowner Nicholas Longworth, was instrumental in extending Duncanson’s career well beyond Ohio. In early 1851, Longworth commissioned him to paint eight elaborate landscape murals and two floral vignettes to adorn the Longworth family estate called Belmont. The estate now stands as the Taft Museum, with Duncanson’s work remaining as one of the biggest pre-Civil War domestic murals in the United States. This assignment was the largest and most ambitious of Duncanson’s career, and helped him to finance a trip abroad.
It was traditional for any serious artist of Duncanson’s era to make what was called a “grand tour” of Europe’s art treasures, but no African American artist had previously done so. In 1853, along with fellow landscape artist William Louis Sonntag, he went on a nine-month tour that included England, France, and Italy before returning via Canada. Duncanson was tremendously affected by his journey and resolved to continue traveling as often as possible. Each sojourn brought new elements to his work. In England, he was welcomed by abolitionists and aristocrats. He met the renowned poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose works became elements of literary interpretation in Duncanson’s paintings. His travels throughout Italy were evident in the subsequent inclusion of fantasy elements within his landscapes, and his painting Landscape With Rainbow incorporated French attitudes, particularly those of artist Claude Lorrain.
Time spent among intellectual artists and committed opponents to slavery in Europe also spurred Duncanson’s political sensibilities. In the years before the Civil War began in 1861, he increasingly donated paintings to abolitionist causes and personally participated in several demonstrations and activist rallies. Just as war broke out in the United States, Duncanson created what many critics and historians believe to be his magnum opus, a large work called Land of the Lotus Eaters. Inspired by Tennyson and Homer, the sprawling landscape is populated with Blacks attending to the needs of white soldiers. The work was hailed as a prescient masterpiece of the struggle to save the union and end slavery. But the racial and economic tensions of the time left little room or comfort for Duncanson to exhibit his work, and he left the country, alighting first in Montreal, Canada, and then touring Europe once more.
After exhibiting Land of the Lotus Eaters, Duncanson was welcomed again by the European artistic and aristocratic communities. Among his admirers was the Queen of England, who purchased his works. Land of the Lotus Eaters eventually came to be owned by the king of Sweden. Duncanson became enchanted with the Scottish highlands, and throughout the 1860s, he created a stirring series of landscapes while traveling between the United States and Europe. An 1871 painting, Ellen’s Isle, Loch Katrine, is hailed as the artist’s final masterwork. Although he remained in good health physically, Duncanson began to suffer from dementia in the late 1860s, and his condition steadily worsened until he was placed in a sanitarium in Detroit, Michigan, following a violent seizure. He died there on December 21, 1872.
Duncanson was an enterprising, self-taught landscape artist who was able to begin his career with the support of philanthropic abolitionists. He used the fame he acquired to support the abolitionist cause and became the first African American landscape artist to earn truly international acclaim. Duncanson’s works are now displayed throughout the United States, England, and Scotland. The Taft Museum of Art annually recognizes contemporary creations of African Americans through the Duncanson Artist-in-Residence Program.