As we begin this “Black History” month, let us celebrate with pride that one of the greatest landscape painters in the western United States was an African-American born in Fayette. Although he was beloved by 19th century audiences around the world, this artist fell into obscurity, but a century later has been celebrated as a genius.
Robert Scott Duncanson was born sometime in 1821. His mother was Lucy Nickles, a free African-American from Cincinnati, Ohio, and his father was John Dean Duncanson, whose father was the illegitimate son of his Virginia slave master and was freed and moved to Fayette.
Although born in the town of Fayette, Robert Duncanson spent much of his early youth in Canada. In 1828, John Duncanson moved his family to Monroe, Mich. where John established a profitable house painting and carpentry business. Robert and his four brothers helped in the business, with Robert honing his skills on ornate trim and signs. In 1838, he established a painting business with partner John Gamblin.
That work helped to develop his painting skills, but Duncanson really wanted to be a landscape painter. In 1840 or thereabouts, he moved to a black neighborhood in Cincinnati, which was often referred to as the “Athens of the West” and the “emporium of the West” because of its strong arts community. Cincinnati provided its free black population with much greater access to opportunities for advancement than other parts of antebellum America.
Duncanson became an itinerant portrait artist, looking for work between Cincinnati, Monroe and Detroit. He developed his landscape painting skills by doing scenes of the Ohio River Valley. By 1842 his paintings were being exhibited in the Cincinnati area.
Duncanson’s work was greatly influenced by the Hudson River School painters in that he strove for “romantic, untarnished images of America’s natural landscapes.” His passion for landscape painting led to a friendship with William Louis Sonntag, one of Cincinnati’s leading practitioners of the Hudson River School of landscape painting. Sonntag and Duncanson did their painting in adjacent rooms in the Apollo Building.
Cincinnati, a thriving hub of artistic expression, was an ideal place for Duncanson to develop as an important landscape artist. He had great support from both black and white abolitionists, whom he depicted in portraits. His first significant painting was “Cliff Mine, Lake Superior,” executed in 1848 and commissioned by abolitionist clergyman Charles Avery. That painting and his 1851 painting “Blue Hole, Flood Waters, Little Miami River” established his status as one of the region’s most important painters.
Nicholas Longworth, another abolitionist and wealthy Cincinnati landowner, commissioned Duncanson in 1851 to paint eight elaborate landscape murals and two floral vignettes to adorn the Longworth family estate, Belmont. That estate today is the Taft Museum of Art and Duncanson’s paintings are one of the biggest pre-Civil War domestic murals in the United States. This assignment was the largest and most ambitious of his career and provided him with the money to finance a trip to Europe to expand his artistic skills and knowledge.
An awakening abroad
In 1853, Duncanson went on a nine-month tour of England, France and Italy, along with his friend and fellow landscape artist Sonntag. This trip to Europe was the first by an African-American artist. What he learned prompted him to make several subsequent trips, each adding new elements to his work.
Besides incorporating elements of European artists into his artwork, the time he spent among intellectual artists and committed slavery opponents on these European trips spurred Duncanson’s abolitionist feelings. In the years before the Civil War he increasingly donated paintings to abolitionist causes and participated in several demonstrations and activist rallies.
Just as the Civil War broke out in 1861, Duncanson completed what many critics and historians believe to be his “magnum opus,” “Land of the Lotus Eaters.” Inspired by Tennyson and Homer, this large landscape is populated with blacks attending to the needs of white soldiers and was hailed as a “prescient masterpiece of the struggle to save the union and end slavery.” Because of the Civil War, Duncanson left the United States and spent two years in Canada and then went to Europe.
In Europe he was welcomed again by the artistic and aristocratic communities and his painting “Land of the Lotus Eaters” was admired throughout the Continent. The Queen of England even purchased some of his paintings. Duncanson visited Alfred Lord Tennyson, England’s poet laureate, at his home on the Isle of Wight and Duncanson brought with him “Land of the Lotus Eaters,” which was partially based on a Tennyson poem. Tennyson was delighted by the painting and remarked, “Your landscape is a land in which one loves to wander and linger.” “The Land of the Lotus Eaters” eventually came to be owned by the king of Sweden.
Duncanson became quite enchanted with the Scottish highlands, of which he made a series of landscapes in the 1860s. An 1871 painting, “Ellen’s Isle, Loch Katrine” is hailed as the artist’s final masterwork. This painting was inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s poem “The Lady of the Lake.”
In the late 1860s, Duncanson began to suffer from dementia, although he remained in good health physically. He was prone to sudden outbursts, erratic behavior and delusions to the point that by 1870 he imagined he was possessed by the spirit of a deceased artist. Some scholars suggest that the brooding mood and turbulent waters of his seascape paintings, such as “Sunset on the New England Coast” and “A Storm off the Irish Coast,” reflected his disturbed mental state. His symptoms, as described by Duncanson’s cotemporaries, led to speculation that his condition was caused by lead poisoning, probably the result of large quantities of lead paint he used for his house painting work early in his adult life and then for many years as an artist. Despite his failing health, in 1871 he toured the United States with several historical works, priced upward of $15,000 apiece.
His condition steadily worsened until he was placed in a sanitarium in Detroit, following a violent seizure in October 1872. He died there on Dec. 21, 1872.
Though dozens of Duncanson’s paintings survive in art institutions and private collections, after his death in 1872 his name faded into obscurity. An exhibition of his paintings at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 1972 — the centennial 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,” and recent art exhibitions. Ketner wrote, “Duncanson’s progression from a humble housepainter to recognition in the arts signaled the emergence of the African-American artist from a people predominantly relegated to laborers and artisans.”
Gable is the Seneca County historian.