America’s Forgotten Landscape Painter: Robert S. Duncanson

Beloved by 19th-century audiences around the world, the African-American artist fell into obscurity, only to be celebrated as a genius more than a century later

(Swedish Royal Collection, Stockholm / Wikimedia Commons)

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"Longworth was one of the richest men in the United States," says Perry. "He knew everyone and had connections with everyone. When he gave Duncanson this very important commission for his home, he gave him the Good Housekeeping stamp of approval."

Ever ambitious, Duncanson wanted to be the best at his profession and embarked upon a grand tour of Europe in 1853 to study the masters. His letters reveal an understated confidence: "My trip to Europe has to some extent enabled me to judge of my own talent," he wrote. "Of all the Landscapes I saw in Europe, (and I saw thousands) I do not feel discouraged . . . . Someday I will return."

Meanwhile, Cincinnati had become a hotbed of anti-slavery activity, and Duncanson appears to have supported the cause, participating in abolitionist societies and donating paintings to help raise funds. During the 1850s, Duncanson also worked as the principal artist in the city's premier daguerrean studio with owner James Presley Ball, a fellow African-American. “Both men had African-Americans living with them who listed themselves as painters or daguerreans,” says Ketner. “This was the first real aggregate cluster of an African-American community of artists in America.”

Duncanson is believed to have helped create the images in the anti-slavery presentation, Ball's Splendid Mammoth Pictorial Tour of the United States. (The painting itself no longer exists, but evidence suggests that it was Duncanson’s brushwork). Presented in theaters across the country, the 600-yard-wide panorama utilized narration and special sound and lighting effects to portray the horrors of human bondage from capture and trans-Atlantic passage to slave markets and escape to Canada.

Though Duncanson never overtly addressed racial issues in his paintings, subtle messages appear in works. In his View of Cincinnati, Ohio from Covington, Kentucky, Duncanson contrasts blacks laboring alongside the Ohio River on Kentucky’s slave plantations (as whites lounge leisurely on a hillside) with the prosperity and freedom that looms across the river in Ohio.

“Water in his paintings often [represents] the longing for freedom,” says Perry, “but I really believe Duncanson wanted to align his paintings with the recognized masters in the United States and Europe.”

In fact, after his European pilgrimage, Duncanson had declared,” I have made up my mind to paint a great picture, even if I fail." Although critics had responded favorably to Duncanson’s first post-tour effort, Time’s Temple, it was 1858’s Western Forest that exposed him to an international abolitionist community and helped pave the way for his return to England.

Duncanson executed his next work in the tradition of European paintings that conveyed historical, literary or other moralizing subjects. The result was Land of the Lotus Eaters, based on Tennyson’s poem about the paradise that seduced Ulysses' soldiers. But in Duncanson’s tropical landscape, white soldiers are resting comfortably on the banks of a river, while being served by dark-skinned Americans, reflecting contemporary criticism, says Ketner, that the South had grown dependent on slave labor to support its standard of living. “He prophesied the forthcoming long and bloody Civil War,” writes Ketner, “and offered an African-American perspective.”

A reviewer at the Daily Cincinnati Gazette proclaimed, "Mr. Duncanson has long enjoyed the enviable reputation of being the best landscape painter in the West, and his latest effort cannot fail to raise him still higher."

Duncanson decided to take his “great picture” to Europe—by way of Canada—some say to avoid having to obtain a diplomatic passport required for persons of color traveling abroad. His stopover in Canada would last more than two years.


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