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( 1821-1872 )

Robert S. Duncanson

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Robert S. Duncanson (1821‒72) was assuredly the foremost African American painter of nineteenth-century America.  Distinguished for his portraits and still-lifes, he justly found acclaim as a landscape painter whose works find easy comparison with the landscapes of Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, and even Frederic Church.  Of mixed-race lineage, Duncanson found acceptance in a profession that included privileged white artists, especially those who had academic training in Europe or with the painting dynasties of the Peales, Chapmans, and Weirs of the Eastern Seaboard. 

Born in Seneca County, New York, Duncanson taught himself the fundamentals of drawing and painting in Cincinnati, Ohio.  As he perfected his craft as a portraitist and still-life painter, he turned to landscape-painting as the epitome of his aspirations.  Based for much of his career in Cincinnati, the artist enjoyed considerable success as the leading member of a group of landscape painters that might generally be referred to as the Ohio River School. Duncanson, William L. Sonntag, and T. Worthington Whittredge, were perceived to complement the renowned Hudson River School of Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, and so many others.  Whether they painted scenes of the Hudson River, the Ohio and Tennessee River valleys, or vistas of the American West, these artists created a Romantic vision of the natural world that has defined America’s character since the early nineteenth century. 

Robert Duncanson’s Romantic vision of America is as unique as the man himself.  He contributed to that vision while standing outside of traditional American art historical scholarship.  His racial consciousness found expression in his inclusion of African Americans within his landscapes.  In addition, as an antislavery advocate he used his skills and prominence to further the causes of abolition and the rights of African Americans to share in the ideals of the American nation.   

All of the characteristics important to Duncanson’s artistic legacy are revealed in their strongest manifestations in a remarkable private collection of the artist’s Southern landscapes that has been assembled over the past two decades.  That collection has now been made available.  It contains large finished oil-on canvas paintings, small-scale (probably plein air) studies for those and other known works, and an archive of scholarship that documents the travel paths and connections of the artist.   These works are previously-unknown views of sites in western North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.  They were all painted in the 1850s and 1860s when Duncanson traveled alone or in good company on sketching trips throughout the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the southern Shenandoah Valley.  Assembled as they are, with such strong documentation and artistic coherence, these paintings offer an opportunity to scholars, collectors, and connoisseurs to become part of a revolution in the history of Southern landscape painting. 

These prospects are emboldened by the knowledge that the African American Duncanson was able to travel and work not only unhindered but also with favorable public commentary through Southern states that were simultaneously hardening their defenses of slavery and questioning the value of the American Union.  To strengthen that aspect of the artist’s works it is useful to consider that as he labored on these southern mountain landscapes in his Cincinnati studio, Duncanson was also collaborating with James Presley Ball (1825‒1904) to create a panorama that depicted the full spectrum of African American slavery in America.  Ball’s Splendid Mammoth Pictorial Tour of the United States Comprising Views of the African Slave Trade . . . . (1855) offered a visual history of slavery in the American South beginning with the arrival of a slave ship in Charleston, South Carolina, and concluding with escapes from the evil institution via the Underground Railroad to Queenstown, Canada.   

There can be little doubt that the newly-publicized collection of Duncanson’s southern landscape paintings justify F. C. Wright’s 1916 observation that the artist’s works “expressed the sincere inspiration of nature under a Southern Sky” (Cincinnati Inquirer, March 26, 1916).  They also add a wealth of visual arts evidence that at mid-century Duncanson struck upon powerful ways to express with paint and canvas human aspirations for sublimity, solace, and liberty “under a Southern sky.”

 


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This essay is copyrighted by Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc. and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission.

1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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