In honor of February being Black History Month, I want to talk about an inexcusably overlooked African-American artist. Robert Duncanson (1821/2-1872) was an early Hudson River School painter. As you can see, his work is gorgeous, so it’s completely ridiculous that we don’t talk about him more often.
Duncanson has frequently been compared to Thomas Cole and Frederick Edwin Church, the Hudson River School’s two leading lights. I can definitely see why. Duncanson’s work feels stylistically similar to Church’s, but his choices of idyllic, pastoral views – including many in Europe – remind me more of Cole. I don’t understand why he isn’t celebrated alongside them as a Hudson River School great. I don’t say that lightly, since Cole and Church are two of my favorite artists.
I enjoy the poetic elegance of Duncanson’s landscape paintings. I particularly love his use of lighting and atmosphere, like the rainbow seen above or the deep blue sky and clouds shown below. Duncanson’s paintings are rarely heavy or dramatic, which I find refreshing. They’re a soft kind of picturesque that makes them so easy and enjoyable to look at.
Like Edmonia Lewis, another wonderful African-American artist I wrote about this month, Duncanson’s biography is a bit murky. (As with Lewis, trustworthy sources all disagree with each other.) He was the son of an African-American woman and a Scottish-Canadian father, and he was born in New York state. At some point, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, which was the American mid-west’s cultural and artistic capital at this time. He started his working life as a house painter but soon transitioned to fine arts. It’s unclear if he had any training or was completely self-taught. He also practiced photography at some point. The guy did everything!
Duncanson traveled and painted throughout the northern American states, Canada, Scotland, and Europe, particularly Italy. He painted many scenes of Pompeii, in particular. He settled in Canada during the American Civil War, and although he didn’t spend all that much time there, he has become associated with that country. He was apparently responsible for encouraging a Canadian landscape painting tradition, much like Thomas Cole did for the United States. I wonder if this Canadian element is part of why many U.S. museums don’t prioritize showing his work.
I’ve admired Duncanson’s beautiful landscapes for a while, but I only recently learned that he was also a wonderful still life painter. I mean, look at how amazing the painting below is! He didn’t paint very many still lives, which may be why haven’t been widely recognized until recently. This one depicts fruit, but he was every bit as good with flowers. Duncanson painted a couple of nice portraits and a few narrative scenes, mostly notably the Detroit Institute of Arts’s Uncle Tom and Little Eva, which is based on the famous abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Duncanson is another frustrating example of a great artist who was valued in his time but forgotten afterwards. Even in the racially-divided era of the American Civil War, North Americans and Europeans alike had no trouble appreciating this biracial African-American’s work. He was once called “the greatest landscape painter in the West”. So, why have we stopped appreciating him?
The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. owns many paintings by Robert Duncanson, and quite a few are currently on view. Another great place to see Duncanson’s art is the Taft Museum in Cincinnati. While living in Cincinnati, Duncanson painted eight murals on the walls of Nicholas Longworth’s private home, which is now the Taft Museum. The murals are still there to see today.
Update 2/27/2021: I wrote another article about Duncanson for DailyArt Magazine. It features a different selection of paintings than this one does. Read it at the link below.
“Robert S. Duncanson: African-American Painter in the Spotlight“. Published on DailyArt Magazine on February 27, 2021.
“Robert Duncanson“. Williams College Art Museum.
“Still Life With Fruit and Nuts“. National Gallery of Art.
“Robert S. Duncanson“. Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Craven, Wayne. American Art: History and Culture. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2003. P. 209.