Robert S. Duncanson

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Robert Scott Duncanson
Robert Scott Duncanson - Landscape with Rainbow .jpg
Landscape with Rainbow, 1859, 30 × 5214 inches, (76.3 × 132.7 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.
Born 1821 (1821)
Fayette, New York
Died December 21, 1872 (1872-12-22)
Detroit, Michigan
Nationality American
Education Self taught
Known for Painting
Movement The Hudson River School

Robert Scott Duncanson (1821 – December 21, 1872) was an African-American painter associated with the Hudson River School. [1] He was a landscape and portrait painter born in northern New York in 1821.[2]


He was born in Seneca County, New York, in 1821.[3] As a young boy, Duncanson lived with his father in Canada, while his mother lived in Mount Pleasant, Ohio, a village fifteen miles (24 km) north of Cincinnati. It was not until the summer of 1841 that Duncanson left Canada for Mount Pleasant. Upon his return to his mother’s home, Duncanson said, “I’ve come back to be an artist.”[4] Yearning to do more with paint than use it on houses, as he had been doing since 1838 with his house painting and decorating venture, he moved to Cincinnati, which seemed to be the right place. Around this time period, Cincinnati was “known as the Athens of the West.”[5] Although Duncanson possessed the drive and determination to be an artist, he received no technical training. Instead, “determined to break into the exclusively Caucasian art community [... he] taught himself art by painting portraits and copying prints.”[6] Duncanson’s determination paid off with a long career that was active until his death in 1872. During his lifetime Duncanson married twice and had three children, Reuben, Milton, and daughter Bertha.[7] Robert Duncanson’s life and career took him around the globe and back again.


Duncanson's artistic career had several phases which led him to travel both the country and the world for the pursuit of his art. Because he was not a formally trained artist, he honed his skills copying prints and painting portraits. In 1842 Duncanson had three portraits ("Fancy Portrait," "Infant Savior, a copy," and "Miser") accepted to the last exhibition hosted by the Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge which had succeeded the Cincinnati Academy of Fine Arts.[8](p. 15) This served as his public debut to the art world, however this success also came with a dose of reality. No one in Duncanson’s family, not even his mother was allowed to attend the show because of their ethnicity. But keeping everyone’s spirits up his mother said of his paintings, “I know what they look like [...] I know that they are there! That’s the important thing.”[7]

Taking a short break from portrait work, Duncanson collaborated with another artist, photographer Coates. Together, on “March 19, 1844, Coates and Duncanson advertised a spectacle of ‘Chemical Paintings... comprising four splendid views after the singular style of Daguerre.”[8](p. 18) It is thought that Duncanson was the artistic mind behind the composition of the images while Coates took care of the technical side. Although Duncanson was making progress as an artist personally and publicly, the lack of commissions for his work pushed him to move to Detroit in 1845.

While in Detroit, Duncanson returned to his roots as a portrait painter and was well received by the local press. In 1846, the Detroit Daily Advertiser praised Duncanson for his skill and color usage, adding, “Mr. Duncanson deserves, and we trust will receive the patronage of all lovers of the fine arts.”[9] Portrait commissions in Detroit were forthcoming, but Duncanson was becoming interested in the genre painting tradition. He was first exposed to the tradition of genre painting through the work of fellow Cincinnati artist James H. Beard.[8](p. 19) Tired of Detroit and longing to expand his repertoire, Duncanson returned to Cincinnati in 1846.

Success and landscapes[edit]

As he moved away from portrait work, the exploration journals of John Stevens and Frederick Catherwood, Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan intrigued Duncanson. The prints in these books prompted Duncanson to experiment with far off places and forgotten civilizations in his work. Back in Cincinnati and full of new inspiration, he received a career-boosting commission from Charles Avery. Avery was an abolitionist Methodist minister who commissioned the work Cliff Mine, Lake Superior in 1848. Not only did this work bolster Duncanson’s career as a landscape painter, it also established him within a network of abolitionist patrons who would sustain most of his career.[6]

After the successful work done for Avery, Duncanson dove into the realm of landscape painting. Along with two other Cincinnati artists, Whittredge and Sonntag, Duncanson became inspired by the work of the Hudson River School artists and aspired to paint the American landscape. Together, the three artists set out on a series of sketching trips around the country to provide them with the necessary material and inspiration to bring back to their Cincinnati studios.[8](p. 28) After sketching tours scattered about, Duncanson focused on the Ohio River Valley in the early 1850s. With his ambitions cast on landscape work, and feeling the influence of the Hudson River artists, Duncanson strived to transform his topographical works into something more like they had, including “moral messages or literary associations.”[10] To do this he turned to Thomas Cole, copying many of his works dealing with paradise and drawing parallels between the imaginary lands painted and America.[8]

Belmont murals and work with James Presley Ball[edit]

Ducanson’s success and progress throughout the years caught the eye of one of Cincinnati’s wealthiest citizens. In 1851, Nicholas Longworth commissioned Duncanson to paint murals on the walls of his home, which was called the Belmont.[7] Duncanson created eight murals for the entry of the Belmont, each nine feet high and six and a half feet wide. Although the scale of the job was large, and Duncanson was still up and coming, Longworth trusted him with the decoration of his home because he thought him to be “one of our most promising painters”[6] The mural Duncanson created combined both his and Longworth’s appreciation for landscape and interior design, Duncanson having painted houses years before. The murals were taxing and time consuming, however the patronage of such a prominent Cincinnati citizen did much to further his career.

Starting in 1854 and continuing "for about four years," Duncanson worked in the photography studio of James Presley Ball retouching portraits and coloring photographic prints.[8](pp. 101–103) In addition, Duncanson probably participated in the production of a 600-yard-long abolitionist panoramic painting that Ball unveiled in 1855 entitled Mammoth Pictorial Tour of the United States Comprising Views of the African Slave Trade.[8](p. 104)[11]

Self-imposed exile[edit]

With the onset of the Civil War Duncanson exiled himself to Canada and the United Kingdom. In 1863 he took up residence in Montreal and would stay for two years. Here he was accepted enthusiastically and was inspirational to Canadian painters such as Otto Reinhold Jacobi.[12] Canadians loved Duncanson as one of their own and thought of him as one of “the earliest of our professional cultivators of the fine arts.”[6] The Canadian landscape greatly influenced Duncanson, and is evident in many of his works. In 1865 he left Canada for the United Kingdom, particularly England and Scotland, to tour one of his most accomplished works, The Land of the Lotus Eaters. In Europe, his work was well received and the prestigious London Art Journal declared him a master of landscape painting.[6] In the winter of 1866–67 Duncanson returned to Cincinnati. Inspired by his European travels he painted many scenes of the Scottish landscape.

Final years[edit]

In the final years of his life, Duncanson created some of his greatest works. Throughout his career, his works had always tended toward the pastoral, and his late works continued to show his love of landscape painting and resonated calmness and serenity.[8](p. 157) Duncanson fell physically and psychologically ill and died in Detroit, Michigan on December 21, 1872, when he was 51 years old.[7] With the changing cultural tastes of the time Robert S. Duncanson’s work fell into obscurity. He was buried at the Woodland Cemetery in Monroe, Michigan.


Although not very well known by the general public, Robert S. Duncanson had a significant impact on American art. As the first American painter to take up residence in Canada and focus on its landscape, his influence has been felt there as well.[13] At a gallery showing in Harlem, the New York Amsterdam News called the works by Duncanson “pioneering.”[14] It is not the genre he chose to paint in that was pioneering, it was the subtle way he infused his paintings with an African-American sensibility without creating what the art world would categorize as African-American paintings. Although Duncanson’s son urged him to be more outright African-American in his works, Duncanson wrote to his son, “I have no color on the brain; all I have on the brain is paint.”[15] This highlights his laid-back approach to racial tensions that the art world had not seen before. Audiences looking at Duncanson’s work have to look hard, beyond the obvious associations with themes of landscape and idealized lands, to see the commentary on a post Civil War America and a socially aware African-American artist. Instead, Richard Powell of American Visions says that Duncanson’s success is a “victory over society’s presumptions of what African American artist should create.”[16] Duncanson’s artwork has become a useful tool in teaching art students about the history of African-American artists.

Selected works[edit]

Landscape, 1870[edit]

Duncanson’s Landscape, 1870 is one in a series of landscape works.

Upon close inspection, the right bank of the river contains two men with a canoe and a fire. Although Duncanson makes them very small, this fits with his trade mark of subtly and functions as a “metaphor for nature as pastoral, picturesque environment receptive to the presence of people.” The light source comes from the natural light of the sun. With the shadows and haziness of the lighting, and the brightest part being the western sky, the landscape seems to be portraying dusk in the mountains. The colors of this work are all soft and natural, giving it a very serene feel. This great landscape work shows Duncanson’s development as an artist and technical achievement. Landscape, 1870 was created in the last phase of his career after a tour to Europe. European influence is detected in the brushed foliage of the two tall trees on the left, while the rocks and mountains pay tribute to his influences of the Hudson River School and Thomas Cole. Landscape 1870 is part of a landscape trio that Duncanson used to showcase his range and mastery of the landscape genre. This work represents a picturesque view of nature, while Dog’s Head is more rugged, and Vale of Kashmir is a tropical fantasy. Landscape, 1870 is the culmination of his career and is a testament to his accomplishments as an American landscape painter.[17]

Uncle Tom and Little Eva, 1853[edit]

Robert Duncanson’s Uncle Tom and Little Eva, painted in 1853 is housed at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The painting depicts a scene from Chapter 22 of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The characters are set in an idyllic landscape of tropical plants and Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana. Reverend James Francis Conover commissioned Uncle Tom and Little Eva in 1853 after a viewing of Duncanson’s work at the Fireman’s Hall exhibit in the same year. This work is his only one containing explicit African-American subject matter, and it reveals his personal response to slavery. The theme of salvation from the novel depicted here can be read as both salvation for Eva and the salvation for all slaves. By painting this work, Duncanson announced his stance on slavery and “his hope for a religious basis for resolving the slavery question.”[8](p. 47)[18]

The Caves, 1869[edit]

The Caves, 1869, in the collection of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, depicts the natural beauty of the American landscape. During the nineteenth century, caves were popular attractions, offering visitors an escape from an increasingly industrialized society. Ohio caves offered guided tours. This paintings features a recreational scene with a guide figure holding a lantern in the dark shadows of a cave's mouth. Perhaps the caves had symbolic meaning, as they often served as stops on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War.[19]



1842 Annual Exhibition of Paintings and Statuary, Western Art Union, Cincinnati, OH

1843 Annual Exhibition of Paintings and Statuary, Western Art union, Cincinnati, OH

1864 Art Association of Montreal, Montreal, Canada

1865 Art Association of Montreal, Canada Dublin Exhibition, Ireland

1871 Western Art Gallery, Detroit, MI

1943 Balmoral Castle, Scotland, Museum of Modern Art, NY

1953 Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO

1955 Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, OH

1961 Indianapolis Museum of Art Indianapolis, IN

1967 Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

1970 La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla, CA

1971 Bowdoin College, Museum of Contemporary Art, Brunswick, ME

1972 Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, OH

1972 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, MA

1976 Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA

1979 Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI

1983 National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.

1992 National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.

1996 Washington University, St. Louis, MO

1999 To Conserve a Legacy - American Art from History, Black Colleges and Universities," Studio Museum in Harlem, NY

2003 Then and Now: Selection of 19-20th Century Art by African American Artists, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI

2009 Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, OH

See also[edit]


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ [2]
  3. ^ Public Broadcasting System, Pre-Civil War: Robert Scott Duncanson.
  4. ^ Bearden, Romare, and Harry Henderson. Black Master of American Art. New York: Zenith Books, 1972.
  5. ^ Lifting the Veil: The Emergence of the African American Artist. St. Louis: Sayers Printing, 1995.
  6. ^ a b c d e Lifting the Veil, 1995
  7. ^ a b c d Bearden, 1972.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i Ketner, Joseph D. The Emergence of the African-American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson, 1821–1872. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993. ISBN 0-8262-0880-0
  9. ^ "Lifting the Veil" 1995.
  10. ^ Public Broadcasting System.
  11. ^ Willis, Deborah. J.P. Ball, Daguerrean and Studio Photographer. New York: Garland, 1993. ISBN 0-8153-0716-0.
  12. ^ Pringle, Allan. "Robert S. Duncanson in Montreal, 1863–1865." American Art Journal 17, no. 4 (1985).
  13. ^ Pringle, 1985.
  14. ^ Boyd, Herb. Images and memories Galore at Studio Museum in Harlem. New York Amsterdam News 90, no. 21 (1999).
  15. ^ Powell, Richard J. "Seeing and Thinking About the unexpected in American Art." American Visions 14, no. 1 (1999).
  16. ^ Powell, 1999.
  17. ^ Bill Hodges Gallery. Robert Duncanson 1821–1872: Landscape, 1870. New York: Bill Hodges Gallery & Merton D. Simpson Gallery, Inc., 2003.
  18. ^ Kleeblatt, Norman L. "Master Narratives/Minority Artists." Art Journal 57, no. 3 (1998).
  19. ^ "A Landscape by Robert S. Duncanson Acquired by the Amon Carter Museum". Retrieved 10 October 2015. 

External links[edit]