Artist Introductions

Robert Seldon Duncanson

The Tale of a Nineteenth-Century Black Artist, from Cincinnati to the White House

Photograph of Robert Duncanson © Wikipedia Commons Public Domain

Welcome back to another Artist Introduction! This week, we’re looking at a fascinating landscape painter whose work has recently come back into the limelight. 

Robert Seldon Duncanson is pretty well-known in the US. However, on the other side of the pond, his utopian paintings seem to have become lost in the self-obsessed sea of European landscape. 

Born in New York in 1821, Duncanson was a self-taught landscape painter – little is known about his heritage, but it is likely that he was closely descended from freed slaves in the State of Virginia. He is considered the first African American artist to gain international recognition, and his work was fervently supported by many prominent abolitionist figures at the time.

Close up of Robert Duncanson, 'Landscape with Rainbow', 1859 © americanart.si.edu

Despite having no formal artistic training, Duncanson set out to begin his career as an artist aged nineteen, and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. He first exhibited at the Cincinnati Academy of Fine Arts in 1842, and his work was very well-received. Exhibiting at the Academy as an untrained black artist was no mean feat; an achievement made even more impressive considering that slavery was not fully abolished in the US until 1865. Despite his ground-breaking success, Duncanson’s race prevented him from studying at the Academy, and his family were not allowed to visit his exhibition.

Duncanson began his artistic career by painting portraits of itinerant workers, but he had become intrigued by the prevalent genre of landscape painting. Inspired by the Romantic style of the Hudson River School artists, he immersed himself in the dynamic and stunning landscapes of North America, producing classically-inspired utopian oil paintings that Claude Lorrain (who is considered the father of the European landscape tradition, and one of Duncanson’s main influences) would have been proud of. 

Robert Duncanson, 'A Dream of Italy', 1865 © artsbma.org
Robert Duncanson, 'Chapultepec Castle', 1860 © Google Arts and Culture

In 1853, he embarked on a European ‘Grand Tour’, visiting and recording the bucolic, classical landscapes that had inspired the genre, and studying works by Claude and J. M. W. Turner. He was inspired by ancient sites incuding the ruins of Pompeii, and the formidable Mount Vesuvius. 

‘Landscape with Rainbow’ was completed in 1859 and can be considered Duncanson’s seminal work. The painting is true to his North American beginnings, and depicts the Ohio River under a lavender sky, dappled in white-gold sunlight, and complete with intricately-observed cattle, foliage, and staffage . The work was extremely well-received: it was hailed as “one of the most beautiful pictures painted on this side of the [Allegheny] mountains”, as reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1860. 

This painting could have a whole post dedicated to it – its rich symbolism promises hope in the midst of a looming Civil War, and can be interpreted as a symbol of promise even today – the artwork was presented to Joe Biden and his wife during his inauguration on 20 January 2021, “Alluding to a new chapter in American leadership, democracy, and governance”.

I could write about Robert Duncanson alllll day. He has so many paintings that are worthy of discussion, and an inspiring legacy that should be better appreciated beyond North America. For me, it’s a shame that the dominant art-historical debates surrounding his work search for racial metaphors in his utopian landscapes: his race may have defined his unparalleled achievement, but it is crucial to consider his paintings outside of a racialised perspective. Below, I have selected some of my favourite of Duncanson’s landscapes: I hope you can appreciate his work not just for its exceptional artistic merit, but also for its unprecedented historical achievement.

Robert Duncanson, 'Landscape with Rainbow', 1859 © americanart.si.edu
Robert Duncanson, 'Owl's Head Mountain', 1864 © gallery.ca
Robert Duncanson, 'Vesuvius and Pompeii', 1870 © americanart.si.edu
Robert Duncanson, 'Scottish Landscape', 1871 © Wikipedia Commons Public Domain
Robert Duncanson, 'Waterfall Mont Morency', 1864 © Wikipedia Commons Public Domain
Robert Duncanson, 'Ellen's Isle', c.1870 © Wikipedia Commons Public Domain
Robert Duncanson, 'Pompeii, 1871 © Wikipedia Commons Public Domain

Thanks for reading!

The Art Wanderer

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