In the mid-1860s, an African-American artist arrived at the home of England’s poet laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, on the Isle of Wight. He brought with him his most celebrated painting, Land of the Lotus Eaters, based on a poem by the great man of letters.
Tennyson was delighted with the image. “Your landscape,” he proclaimed, “is a land in which one loves to wander and linger.”
The artist, Robert S. Duncanson, known in America as “the greatest landscape painter in the West,” now stood poised to conquer England.
"He invented a unique place for himself that no other African-American had attained at that time,” says art historian Claire Perry, curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibit “The Great American Hall of Wonders.” “It was a position as an eminent artist recognized both within the United States and abroad as a master." Duncanson’s painting Landscape with Rainbow is in the exhibit, which closes January 8, 2012.
Though dozens of Duncanson’s paintings survive in art institutions and private collections, after his death in 1872, his name faded into obscurity. But an exhibition of his paintings at the Cincinnati Art Museum on the centenary of his death helped restore his renown. Since then, his work has been the subject of several books, including art historian Joseph Ketner’s The Emergence of the African-American Artist, as well as the recent exhibition “Robert S. Duncanson: The Spiritual Striving of the Freedmen's Sons,” at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, New York.
“Duncanson’s progression from a humble housepainter to recognition in the arts,” writes Ketner, “signaled the emergence of the African-American artist from a people predominantly relegated to laborers and artisans.”
Duncanson was born circa 1821 in Fayette, New York, into a family of free African-Americans skilled in carpentry and house painting. When he was a boy, the family moved to Monroe, Michigan, where he took up the family trade as a teenager, advertising a new business as a painter and glazier in the Monroe Gazette. But Duncanson, who taught himself fine art by copying prints and drawing still lifes and portraits, was not content to remain a tradesman. He soon moved to Cincinnati, then known as the "Athens of the West" for its abundance of art patrons and exhibition venues.
To make ends meet, he essentially became an itinerant artist, looking for work between Cincinnati, Monroe and Detroit. But in 1848, his career received a major boost when he was commissioned by anti-slavery activist Charles Avery to paint the landscape, Cliff Mine, Lake Superior. The association led to a lifelong relationship with abolitionists and sympathizers who wanted to support black artists.
The commission also ignited a passion in Duncanson for landscape painting, which led to a friendship with William Sonntag, one of Cincinnati's leading practitioners of the Hudson River School of landscape painting. In 1850, the Daily Cincinnati Gazette reported, "In the room adjoining Sonntag's, at Apollo Building, Duncanson, favorably known as a fruit painter, has recently finished a very good strong lake view."
"He had exceptional talent as an artist," says Perry. "But there was also something about his personality that made important patrons take him under their wings.” Nicholas Longworth, a horticulturalist with anti-slavery sentiments, was one of those patrons. Longworth hired him to paint eight monumental landscape murals on the panels inside the main hall of his Belmont mansion, now known as Taft Museum of Art, in Cincinnati. “These are the most ambitious and accomplished domestic mural paintings in antebellum America,” writes Ketner.