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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During his stay, Duncanson helped foster a school of landscape painting, influencing Canadian artists such as Otto Jacobi, C. J. Way, and Duncanson’s pupil, Allan Edson, who would become one of the country’s formative landscape artists. He worked with the prestigious gallery of William Notman, known as the “Photographer to the Queen,” to promote arts and culture; was heralded as a “cultivator” of the arts in Canada; and was perceived as a native son. When he left for the British Isles in 1865, and stopped in Dublin to participate in the International Exposition, he exhibited in the Canadian pavilion.

In London, Duncanson’s long-awaited unveiling of Land of the Lotus Eaters inspired lavish praise. “It is a grand conception, and a composition of infinite skill,” raved one reviewer. “This painting may rank among the most delicious that Art has given us,” he added, “but it is wrought with the skill of a master.”

Duncanson soon became the toast of Great Britain. He enjoyed the patronage of the Duchess of Sutherland, the Marquis of Westminster and other aristocrats and royals, including the King of Sweden, who purchased Lotus Eaters. Duncanson visited the Duchess of Argyll at her castle in Scotland, and made sketches for new landscapes there and in Ireland. Finally, he had realized his longtime dream of returning to Europe and winning international acclaim.

In the midst of such praise and patronage, Duncanson abruptly left England in 1866, after only a year. He may have been eager to experience the rebirth of America now that the Civil War—and the threat posed by the slave-holding Confederacy across the Ohio border—had ended, but his reasons are unclear to art historians.

“Excitable, energetic, irrepressible are words I would apply to his personality,” says Ketner. “It’s what gave him the impetus to have these daring aspirations, but maybe that personality became troubled.”

At the height of his success and fame in the late 1860s and early 1870s, Duncanson was stricken with what was referred to as dementia. Prone to sudden outbursts, erratic behavior and delusions, by 1870, he imagined that he was possessed by the spirit of a deceased artist. Scholars suggest that the brooding mood and turbulent waters of seascapes, such as Sunset on the New England Coast and A Storm off the Irish Coast, reflected his disturbed mental state.

Ketner, who consulted physicians about the symptoms described by Duncanson’s contemporaries, believes his condition was caused by lead poisoning. “As a housepainter, he had dealt with large quantities of lead paint since boyhood,” says Ketner, “and then was exposed to cumulative amounts as an artist.”

While curator Perry believes the stress of straddling the chasm between white and black societies may have contributed to his mental deterioration, she continues to weigh several factors. “He did live a life of incredible stress as a successful African-American in a white-dominated world,” she says. “But people who perform at the highest level of artistic skills are also people of unusual sensitivity.”

Despite the challenges he confronted, Duncanson persevered. He opened a new studio in Cincinnati and turned his sketches of the Scottish Highlands into masterpieces, including Ellen’s Isle, Loch Katrine, a painting inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s poem “The Lady of the Lake,” and Pass at Leny, in which he subordinates the sentimentality of previous landscapes to more naturalistic forms. In 1871, he toured America with several historical works, priced upward of $15,000 apiece.

Even as his health failed, his passion for his work persisted. Duncanson was installing an exhibition in Detroit in October 1872 when he suffered a seizure and collapsed. He died two months later; the cause of death remains uncertain.


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