Robert S. Duncanson and James P. Ball Were the Height of Black Artistry in 19th-Century America

A new exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum reunites the work of two titans of their fields

Robert S. Duncanson’s 1859 oil painting Landscape With Rainbow was displayed at the U.S. Capitol during a celebration for President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Smithsonian American Art Museum

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This article is a selection from the January/February 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

In an alcove in the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), a new exhibition displays just 12 works: three landscape paintings by Robert S. Duncanson and nine photographs, including two daguerreotypes on silver-coated copper plates, by James P. Ball.

Duncanson and Ball were collaborators in the 19th century, but the work of these Black artists—among the first to be internationally recognized for their talent—has seldom been shown together since their deaths more than a century ago. A curatorial team at SAAM has positioned these works close to one another, just as they were at the height of their popularity.

Both artists lived in Cincinnati, once considered the western hub of the art world, where Ball opened the Great Daguerrian Gallery of the West. Duncanson worked with Ball as a colorist. Cincinnati sits on the banks of the Ohio River, which divides Kentucky from Ohio and, in their lifetimes, delineated between slavery and freedom.

The three Duncanson paintings in this exhibition were selected for their images of sanctuary: a majestic hillside home within a community of free African Americans and abolitionists; a waterfall in Quebec, where Duncanson escaped rising racial tensions amid the Civil War; and a rainbow on the northern side of the Ohio River, where escaped slaves finally found freedom. To the untrained eye, these are nothing more than bucolic landscapes. For Duncanson, though, they were a way to embed abolitionist messaging in works that would still be palatable to his largely white clientele.

Ball was part of a trio of prominent African American photographers who were among the first to make daguerreotypes. His works will be included alongside those of Glenalvin Goodridge and Augustus Washington in a permanent collection installation opening in 2026, which—by featuring the contributions of these three artists—presents a more complete history of early photography and the way it democratized portraiture by moving beyond subjects who could afford to commission paintings.

I care deeply about preserving that history: Black photography has been an integral part of my work since the start of my curatorial career at the California African American Museum. Throughout history, Black people have used both the lens and the paintbrush as tools in the struggle for equality, and these three photographers are part of that origin story.

Ball’s works currently on display feature portraits of unnamed white subjects—including one Duncanson likely hand-colored. The exhibition invites visitors to consider the reality of Black artistry in the 19th century, when the two artists worked side by side.