It is not every day that a 19th-century landscape painter is the subject of national news, but that was the case last week, when a work by Robert S. Duncanson on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum was presented to the Biden administration by Congress as an inaugural gift. Duncanson is not a household name—or, at least, not an artist as well-known as some of his contemporaries, including William Louis Sonntag and Worthington Whitteredge. (When the New York Times covered the gift, for example, it did not name Duncanson, only referring to him as a “Black artist.”) But during his day, Duncanson achieved fame, both in the U.S. and Europe, and blazed a trail for future generations of Black artists. To survey Duncanson’s achievements, below is a guide to his life and art.
In 19th-century Ohio, Duncanson’s landscapes brought him unparalleled success.
These days, Duncanson’s idyllic landscapes, filled with peaceful rivers and verdant mountains, reside in the collections of the U.S.’s top museums, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. But, as Duncanson got his start in mid-19th century Ohio, it was largely private collectors who helped secure his place in art history. Many of them were white abolitionists whose support for Black artists became a part of their political mission—and, some have argued, a way of accruing social capital.
Prior to that, Duncanson had struggled to make ends meet. His still lifes, featuring pile-ups of produce set atop unadorned tables, were the result of hard work—Duncanson had taught himself by copying prints and drawing from life. Critics took notice. When one work in the genre by Duncanson was shown at the Michigan State Fair, the Detroit Free Press sang his praises, writing, “The paintings of fruit, etc. by Duncanson are beautiful, and as they deserve, have elicited universal admiration.”
Yet Duncanson had received few major commissions until one came from Charles Avery, a Pennsylvania-based reverend who, having profited from the cotton industry, helped slaves escape the South using the Underground Railroad and became involved in abolitionist causes. In 1848, Avery commissioned Duncanson to paint a landscape, marking a turn for an artist who had generally specialized in still lifes. Titled Cliff Mine, Lake Superior and depicting what was then the top copper mine in the country, the work went on to spur Duncanson to fame.
Other commissions later followed. The abolitionist and horticulturalist Nicholas Longworth brought on Duncanson to paint a series of landscapes for his home in Cincinnati. Completed between 1850 and 1852, the work that Duncanson went on to rank among his defining works. These Hudson River School–inspired images feature sunsets rendered with subtle tonal shifts, intricately painted foliage, and trompe l’oeil frames. At nine feet tall, these works engulf the viewer in transcendent landscapes—though they only saw the light of day for so long. After Longworth died in 1863 and the house was sold, Ducanson’s murals were covered with wallpaper, and they remained that way until 1931, when they were trotted out to be shown at what is now the Taft Museum of Art, which counts them as the finest works in its collection.
Whether Duncanson’s landscapes bear out abolitionist messages is the subject of debate.
In Duncanson’s most famous landscapes, waterfalls tumble over rocky expanses, tiny figures admire giant mountains, and fluffy pastel-colored clouds float over sunlit lakes. For some, these images have been considered more than just pretty pictures. Various art historians have suggested that, in addition to touting the beauty of the American landscape, these works are poignant statements about the horrors of slavery and the importance of maintaining the Union, with natural formations and the people who populate them acting as veiled metaphors.
According to Joseph Ketner, an art historian who wrote a 1993 biography of Duncanson called The Emergence of the African-American Artist, Black audiences at the time would have been able to decode such hidden messages. In the 1862 painting Minneopa Falls, Minnesota, for example, two waterfalls rush through a wooden landscape. Duncanson composed the work such that the viewer’s eye is led along a diagonal line, watching the river’s water as it tumbles over two outcroppings; a figure who has been identified by scholars as a Native American stands in awe of them. Some, including the Cincinnati Art Museum, which owns the work, have suggested that that person is a reference to William Henry Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, which was viewed at the time as being about the violence wrought by white settlers upon Indigenous peoples. Abolitionists embraced that text because they saw parallels in the treatment of Black slaves.
Whether Duncanson’s visually striking canvases are, indeed, meant to communicate political messages remains the subject of debate among historians. In 1993, historian Judith Wilson, whose specialty is 19th-century African-American art, told the New York Times, “I’m excited that scholars are taking different analytic approaches to 19th-century African-American art, which stylistically looks so conventional. But in the case of Duncanson, I think that both historians are working from a false set of assumptions.”
Duncanson charted new paths for Black artists.
Even during his day, Duncanson was celebrated by critics. In 1861, the Daily Cincinatti Gazette wrote effusively of the artist, calling him “the greatest landscape painter in the West”—a superlative that would go on to be echoed when he later traveled abroad and obtained fame in Europe. But success had by no means been assured for Duncanson.
Born sometime around 1821 in Fayette, New York, Duncanson was raised by two freed Black people. (Previously, scholars had thought one of them was white, but Ketner’s research dispelled that notion.) His grandfather had been a slave; his father was a carpenter and a house painter. After an itinerant upbringing spent partly in Detroit and Monroe, Michigan, Duncanson wound up in Cincinnati, which was considered an art capital at the time. It was there that he became a part of a budding network of Black artists that included James Presley Ball, who ran a daguerreotype studio for which Duncanson worked as the principal artist. “This was the first real aggregate cluster of an African-American community of artists in America,” Ketner told Smithsonian Magazine in 2011.
In 1853, with funding from Longworth, the commissioner of his most famous series of landscapes, Duncanson took a grand tour, a survey of European destinations that would allow him to see classic artworks deemed essential to one’s education. (He is believed to have been the first African-American artist to have made such a voyage.) He stopped in London, Paris, and Florence, and continued painting spectacular vistas upon his return. Then the Civil War broke out in 1861, and something within Duncanson shifted. He traveled north, to Canada, and some scholars debate to what extent tensions in the U.S. impacted him. (Some scholars have suggested that Duncanson dealt with psychological strain because he tried to pass as white.)
Whatever the case may be, Duncanson largely remained abroad. He traveled to England once more in 1866, and he found new admirers, including the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He returned to the U.S. later that year, though his mental health began to decline—he began to imagine that he was possessed by a dead artist and exhibited other forms of unusual behavior. Some have ascribed his breakdown to the virulent racism that continued in post–Civil War America, though others have proposed that he had a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia. In 1872, he died at 51, having suffered a seizure that landed him in a sanatorium.
In recent decades, Duncanson has been celebrated anew.
Even though Duncanson’s work had a loyal following among patrons, artists, and critics alike, he was nearly forgotten until the 1970s. Much of his current reputation is thanks to the Cincinnati Art Museum, which held a survey of Duncanson’s art on the occasion of the centennial of his death, in 1972, though curator David C. Driskell also helped elevate his paintings. In a landmark traveling exhibition called “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” which opened in 1976 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Duncanson’s work was placed in a continuum of key Black artists that included Edmonia Lewis, Henry Ossawa Turner, Horace Pippin, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Charles White, and many more. “I was looking for a body of work which showed first of all that blacks had been stable participants in American visual culture for more than 200 years; and by stable participants I simply mean that in many cases they had been the backbone,” Driskell told the New York Times of his exhibition in 1977, when it traveled to the Brooklyn Museum.
Further signs of Duncanson’s renewed fame came in 2018, when Detroit-based artist Dora Kelley began leading a campaign to finally get the artist a gravestone. Despite the fact that it was a piece of local lore that Duncanson was buried the city, his grave went unmarked, a practice typical of the era for African-Americans. In 2019, the Detroit Institute of Arts presented the new headstone for Duncanson, which features his image, along with a quote from him: “I have no color on the brain. All I have on the brain is paint.”