Robert Duncanson - Vesuvius and Pompeii, 1870
10 x 15 5/8 in. (25.4 x 39.7 cm.)
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC, USA
Robert Seldon Duncanson (1821 – December 21, 1872) was an African-American painter associated with the Hudson River School. He is often described incorrectly as Robert Scott Duncanson, the son of a Canadian of Scottish descent, but he was actually descended from freed Virginia slaves.
He was born in Seneca County, New York, in 1821. As a young boy, Duncanson lived with his father in Canada, while his mother lived in Mount Pleasant, Ohio, a village fifteen miles (24 km) north of Cincinnati. It was not until the summer of 1841 that Duncanson left Canada for Mount Pleasant. Upon his return to his mother’s home, Duncanson said, “I’ve come back to be an artist.” Yearning to do more with paint than use it on houses, as he had been doing since 1838 with his house painting and decorating venture, he moved to Cincinnati, which seemed to be the right place. Around this time period, Cincinnati was “known as the Athens of the West.” Although Duncanson possessed the drive and determination to be an artist, he received no technical training. Instead, “determined to break into the exclusively Caucasian art community [… he] taught himself art by painting portraits and copying prints.” Duncanson’s determination paid off with a long career that was active until his death in 1872. During his lifetime Duncanson married twice and had three children, Reuben, Milton, and daughter Bertha. Robert Duncanson’s life and career took him around the globe and back again.
Duncanson’s artistic career had several phases which lead him to travel both the country and the world for the pursuit of his art. Because he was not a formally trained artist, he honed his skills copying prints and painting portraits. In 1842 Duncanson had three portraits (“Fancy Portrait,” “Infant Savior, a copy,” and “Miser”) accepted to the last exhibition hosted by the Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge which had succeeded the Cincinnati Academy of Fine Arts. This served as his public debut to the art world, however this success also came with a dose of reality. No one in Duncanson’s family, not even his mother was allowed to attend the show because of their ethnicity. But keeping everyone’s spirits up his mother said of his paintings, “I know what they look like […] I know that they are there! That’s the important thing.”
Taking a short break from portrait work, Duncanson collaborated with another artist, photographer Coates. Together, on “March 19, 1844, Coates and Duncanson advertised a spectacle of ‘Chemical Paintings… comprising four splendid views after the singular style of Daguerre.” It is thought that Duncanson was the artistic mind behind the composition of the images while Coates took care of the technical side. Although Duncanson was making progress as an artist personally and publicly, the lack of commissions for his work pushed him to move to Detroit in 1845.
While in Detroit, Duncanson returned to his roots as a portrait painter and was well received by the local press. In 1846, the Detroit Daily Advertiser praised Duncanson for his skill and color usage, adding, “Mr. Duncanson deserves, and we trust will receive the patronage of all lovers of the fine arts.” Portrait commissions in Detroit were forthcoming, but Duncanson was becoming interested in the genre painting tradition. He was first exposed to the tradition of genre painting through the work of fellow Cincinnati artist James H. Beard. Tired of Detroit and longing to expand his repertoire, Duncanson returned to Cincinnati in 1846.
As he moved away from portrait work, the exploration journals of John Stevens and Frederick Catherwood, Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan intrigued Duncanson. The prints in these books prompted Duncanson to experiment with far off places and forgotten civilizations in his work. Back in Cincinnati and full of new inspiration, he received a career-boosting commission from Charles Avery. Avery was an abolitionist Methodist minister who commissioned the work Cliff Mine, Lake Superior in 1848. Not only did this work bolster Duncanson’s career as a landscape painter, it also established him within a network of abolitionist patrons who would sustain most of his career.
After the successful work done for Avery, Duncanson dove into the realm of landscape painting. Along with two other Cincinnati artists, Whittredge and Sonntag, Duncanson became inspired by the work of the Hudson River School artists and aspired to paint the American landscape. Together, the three artists set out on a series of sketching trips around the country to provide them with the necessary material and inspiration to bring back to their Cincinnati studios. After sketching tours scattered about, Duncanson focused on the Ohio River Valley in the early 1850s. With his ambitions cast on landscape work, and feeling the influence of the Hudson River artists, Duncanson strived to transform his topographical works into something more like they had, including “moral messages or literary associations.” To do this he turned to Thomas Cole, copying many of his works dealing with paradise and drawing parallels between the imaginary lands painted and America.
With the onset of the Civil War Duncanson exiled himself to Canada and the United Kingdom. In 1863 he took up residence in Montreal and would stay for two years. Here he was accepted enthusiastically and was inspirational to Canadian painters such as Otto Reinhold Jacobi. Canadians loved Duncanson as one of their own and thought of him as one of “the earliest of our professional cultivators of the fine arts.” The Canadian landscape greatly influenced Duncanson, and is evident in many of his works. In 1865 he left Canada for the United Kingdom, particularly England and Scotland, to tour one of his most accomplished works, The Land of the Lotus Eaters. In Europe, his work was well received and the prestigious London Art Journal declared him a master of landscape painting. In the winter of 1866–67 Duncanson returned to Cincinnati. Inspired by his European travels he painted many scenes of the Scottish landscape.
In the final years of his life, Duncanson created some of his greatest works. Throughout his career, his works had always tended toward the pastoral, and his late works continued to show his love of landscape painting and resonated calmness and serenity. Duncanson fell physically and psychologically ill and died in Detroit, Michigan on December 21, 1872, when he was 51 years old. With the changing cultural tastes of the time Robert Scott Duncanson’s work fell into obscurity. He was buried at the Woodland Cemetery in Monroe, Michigan.