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Hailed as the first African American artist to achieve both national and international recognition during his lifetime, Robert Duncanson was a self-taught painter whose romantic landscapes bear comparison to works by the central figures of the Hudson River School and, as one London critic opined, with “any of the modern British school.”

 

Details about Duncanson’s early life and education are sparse and often conflicting. One of the chief questions surrounding the artist has been his race and lineage. Scholars now concur that Duncanson was born to free Virginians “of color.” His family, described in historical literature and official census records as “mulatto,” settled in the upstate New York town of Fayette around the turn of the century, where Robert was born in 1821. Later, the Duncansons moved west to Monroe, Michigan. As one of five sons, teen-aged Robert was trained in the family trades of carpentry and house painting. While pursuing gainful employment as a painter and glazier, Duncanson began to make art. Despite his lack of formal instruction, he started with portraiture before advancing to landscapes and genre scenes. In the early 1840s, Duncanson relocated to Cincinnati, known for its active art community and significant population of free blacks. There, he advertised his services as both a house painter (muralist) and a “fancy painter,” and established a studio adjacent to the one used by William Louis Sonntag, the area’s leading landscape painter and a member of the Hudson River School. Sonntag was both friend and mentor to Duncanson; the pair later traveled abroad together. During his first years in Cincinnati, Duncanson struggled to make ends meet and sometimes worked as an itinerant painter, often visiting Detroit. Toward the latter 1840s, abolitionists began to patronize the artist, and commissions grew in number and import.

 

In the summer of 1850, Duncanson made a well-documented sketching trip through Kentucky, Tennessee, and western North Carolina in search of subject matter for his brush, a common practice for artists of the day. Accompanied by Augustus O. Moore—a white artist and merchant from Georgia—the two made their way through the racially charged South without incident. Details of the visit to Asheville, North Carolina, was reported in the same August 14 edition of the local newspaper that included advertisements for the purchase of “young Negroes”: “Mr. R. S. Duncanson and Mr. A. O. Moore, of Cincinnati, Ohio, have been at our village for a fortnight or more, taking sketches of the mountain and river scenery. . . . Mr. Duncanson appears to be a fine artist . . . and we wish him abundant success.” Three years later, Duncanson departed for a year-long grand tour of Europe. In an 1854 letter to a friend, he wrote of the enlightenment and encouragement the trip provided: “Every day . . . sheds a new light over my path. . . . My trip to Europe has to some extent enabled me to judge of my own talent. Of all the landscapes I saw in Europe (and I saw thousands) I do not feel discouraged.” Regular reviews of his work in the Cincinnati press testify to his critical and commercial success throughout this decade.

 

Inspired by the masters of the Hudson River School and Sonntag’s sweeping Midwestern vistas, Duncanson’s landscapes are dramatic testaments to the pastoral beauty of nature—but did little to reflect the grave political climate of the mid-nineteenth century. Although he was active in abolitionist societies and donated paintings in support of the cause, he rarely addressed the national controversy in his paintings. In 1853, Duncanson executed Uncle Tom and Little Eva, a scene based on an engraved illustration in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and believed to be the only example of a Duncanson work in which a black person is centrally featured. Most pictorial references, however, are quite subtle and simply document African Americans and Native Americans as active participants in the physical world, as exemplified by the Native American figures featured in the foreground of Hunting in the Woods. Duncanson’s most overt commentary on the issue of slavery was perhaps expressed in his 1861 self-described “great picture,” The Land of the Lotus Eaters. Inspired by Alfred Tennyson’s poem of a similar title (and rooted in Homer’s Odyssey), the large canvas portrays indigenous peoples greeting a group of white soldiers. When the painting went on exhibit in London, it was hailed as “a grand conception, and a composition of infinite skill . . . [that] may rank among the most delicious that Art has given us” and was promptly purchased by the king of Sweden. Extant photographs and anecdotal accounts suggest that some may have assumed that the light-skinned Duncanson was white, perhaps easing his acceptance in white art circles. In a letter to his son, Duncanson made his position plain: “I have no color on the brain; all I have on the brain is paint.”

 

During the Civil War, Duncanson lived in Canada before obtaining a diplomatic passport that allowed him to travel to continental Europe and Great Britain from 1865 to 1866. He paid a final visit to England and Scotland in 1870, and it was not long after his return to the United States that he experienced a serious decline in his health. As evidenced in later paintings, Duncanson suffered from mental illness now thought to have been caused by prolonged exposure to lead paint. Fellow artist and friend Henry Mosler remarked on Duncanson’s moodiness and sudden upheavals. After a breakdown in 1872, Duncanson died in a Michigan hospital at the age of fifty-one. Following his death, the artist fell into relative obscurity, and it is only in recent decades that scholars have re-examined his pioneering career. Noted professor and author Richard Powell describes Duncanson’s success as a “victory over society’s presumption of what an African American artist should create.”