Celebrating the Hudson River School’s African American Painter, Robert S. Duncanson

Robert S. Duncanson was a celebrated African American painter of the Hudson River School


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robert s. duncanson
Duncanson was descended from freed Virginia slaves

The Hudson River School of landscape painters is world renowned, and most of us are familiar with the artists who dominated this movement: Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Asher B. Durand, Albert Bierstadt.

But like any artistic movement, the Hudson River School inspired painters from other parts of the country to embrace majestic American landscape painting. One of the most celebrated and unlikely of these artists was an African American who never lived in the Hudson Valley. His name is Robert Seldon Duncanson.

Duncanson was born in 1821, in the Finger Lakes town of Fayette, New York. There are conflicting biographies, but Joseph D. Ketner II, the Foster Chair in Contemporary Art and Distinguished Curator-in-Residence at Emerson College in Boston, has done perhaps the most extensive research on the man and curated shows of his work. In a 2011 article for Antiques magazine, Ketner says that Duncanson’s parents were both, to use the term of the time, mulattos. His extended family came to New York from Virginia in the late 18th or early 19th century, “probably as a result of the manumission of some slaves in Virginia after the American Revolution,” Ketner writes. The family moved onto land that the Federal government had granted to Revolutionary War veterans, “which suggests that Duncanson’s grandfather, Charles (c. 1744 –1828), may have earned his freedom in exchange for military service.”

Census records list the family’s members as “mulatto” and “free colored persons” who worked as carpenters, joiners, and painters. “The Duncansons participated in the growth of the black middle class at the turn of the 19th century, a time when African American artisans were prevalent in the trades in the United States,” Ketner writes, and Robert Duncanson apprenticed in both carpentry and house painting.

In 1841, he moved to Cincinnati, which at the time was a very progressive and socially dynamic city — it was known as the “Athens of the West” — that became a center for African American artists and abolitionists. Duncanson worked as a painter, both of houses and, as he advertised himself, as a “fancy painter.” He had some success, and in 1842 three of his portraits were exhibited in Cincinnati. His life and work were forever changed, however, in 1848, when he went to an exhibit at Cincinnati’s Western Art Union and saw Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life series. “The experience prompted him to focus on landscape as a metaphor for expressing American ideals,” Keutner writes.

With no formal art training, he taught himself by copying Cole and Church directly to learn the style. “His work was an attempt to translate that style, which was considered to be ‘American,’ ” Ketner says. As the still-new nation was trying to define itself, landscape painting was one way it distinguished itself from old world. “He was trying to appropriate that by copying it, while also conveying the values of free African Americans,” Ketner says.

robert s. duncanson landscape with sheep
Duncanson’s painting, “Landscape with Sheep,” hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Duncanson also set out to see America, taking “sketching trips” throughout the Midwest, into Canada and down into the Hudson Valley, though it is not known if he ever met any of the painters who inspired him. He used those sketches to compose his paintings, some of which may include scenes from the region, but none of which are distinctly of the Hudson Valley.

Ketner writes that Duncanson emulated the romantic style and mission of Cole and Durand, “but he rarely created the kinds of dramatic and sublime views of the wilderness for which those artists are known, preferring instead more pastoral and picturesque scenes that he considered emblematic of the ideals of both the country at large and the free black community within it.”

His career got its start through a large commission by a Cincinnati art patron who hired Duncanson to create a suite of landscape mural paintings for his mansion, which is now the Taft Museum of Art. The museum calls the murals “evidence of Duncanson’s most ambitious artistic creations… Together, the eight paintings constitute one of the largest existing pre-Civil War domestic mural decorations in the United States.”

Duncanson himself wasn’t a virulent abolitionist. His own son urged him to explore African American themes more overtly in his works. “I have no color on the brain; all I have on the brain is paint,” Duncanson reportedly wrote to him. Though he was not on the front lines of the anti-slavery battle, he most likely contributed work to an abolitionist panel that traveled around the country, though this is not known for certain. The panel, a 600-yard-long abolitionist panorama called “Mammoth Pictorial Tour of the United States Comprising Views of the African Slave Trade,” was advertised as “Painted by Negros.”

The coming Civil War brought about the end of Cincinnati’s black artistic community. “Racial tensions were running high in the city and pro-slavery sentiment was directed at the free black population,” Ketner writes. “Duncanson responded to the grave political climate by creating Land of the Lotus Eaters, his most ambitious easel painting.” Ketner says that the painting, inspired by The Odyssey, “offered a plea for peace in a canvas where dark-skinned figures cross the river to white soldiers. The painting went on public display in the city as the war erupted.”

At the height of the war, in 1863, Duncanson moved to Montreal, and in 1865 to the United Kingdom, which he toured with The Land of the Lotus Eaters. He was celebrated in both countries; the prestigious London Art Journal called him a “master of landscape painting.” After the war he returned to Cincinnati and painted many scenes of the Scottish landscape. But his health began to decline, both physically and psychologically. “He went insane,” Ketner says, “thinking he was possessed of the spirit of a past artistic master — who was female, of all things. This is also part of what makes his story so interesting.” Though there is no proof, he most likely suffered from lead poisoning, which many itinerant house painters acquired from mixing their own paints. He died in Detroit on December 21, 1872, at age 51.

“He died at the perfect time,” Ketner says, because this style of painting fell out of favor soon after. Though less well known than the Valley’s homegrown artists, Duncanson nevertheless has left a worthy legacy. “In the west he was considered one of the most prominent painters,” Ketner says. “Some of his paintings are every bit the equal to the work of Cole and Church, but his true value is in being a person of color trying to participate in the American Dream.”

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