Robert S. Duncanson was born in Fayette, New York, to freed slaves from Virginia. He was raised in Monroe, Michigan. His grandfather, an accomplished carpenter and house painter, passed down his skills to Robert’s father and his four sons. Possessing these skills, Robert developed his artistic painting skills largely on his own by copying prints and by sketching. He was in a painting business from 1838 to 1839 with John Gamblen. He left for Cincinnati to further his art. With had a population of approximately 3000 free blacks, Cincinnati was welcoming to Duncanson. Cincinnati also was known as “the Athens of the West,” with a growing group of wealthy art patrons. A few of Duncanson’s portraits were accepted into the Cincinnati Academy of Fine Arts exhibition in 1842, yet he was not permitted to take classes at the Academy. The works were well received, but his family was not permitted to attend the exhibition. His mother said “I know what they look like …I know that they are there! That’s the important thing.”
Duncanson met Worthington Whittredge and William Louis Sonntag, both new to Cincinnati and hoping to develop their painting careers. Of similar age and interest, the three became friendly. They went on sketching trips on the Ohio River in the 1850s, and developed a strong interest in nature, and turned successfully to landscape painting. The major influence for their change from portrait or still-life subjects was the notable popularity of the landscape paintings of Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School. Duncanson began to be recognized in the mid-west. In 1848 the Detroit Daily Advertiser stated, “Mr. Duncanson deserves, and we trust will receive the patronage of all lovers of the fine arts.”
“Blue Hole, Flood Waters, Little Miami River” (1851) (28.5’’ x 41.4’’) depicts a real location on the Little Miami River, and the painting is an excellent example of Duncanson’s work. Three small figures at the center of the composition, invite us to grab a pole and to come and sit down by the river, and enjoy the peaceful day. The water is still, the sky is calm. Duncanson has mastered the painting technique of the European and Hudson River painters. The painting’s composition moves the viewer’s eye on a zigzag path from the red flowers and rocks at the lower left, to the fishermen, to the right side where light catches a few bent and fallen branches angled inward toward a large speckled rock. Catching a bit of light behind the rock is a forest clearing where some of the trees angle toward the center of the painting, pointing back across the water to a standing dead tree. This tree and the verticality of the forest that surrounds it effectively halts the compositional flow to the right. The viewer’s eye is drawn across the river again and settles on the white tree trunk centered in the canvas. The calm, cloud filled sky completes this pastoral reverie. Duncanson uses bits of color and splashes of light, and he carefully angles lines of natural objects to slowly reveal the secrets of the painting.
Cincinnati was the home of many abolitionists. Charles Avery, an abolitionist Methodist minister, introduced Duncanson to the large number of abolitionist art patrons. Nicholas Longworth, one of the richest men in America, became a significant patron of Duncanson. Longworth commissioned him to create eight landscape paintings to cover the foyer walls of his Cincinnati mansion, Belmont (1848-1851) (9’ high to 6.5’ wide).The walls were covered with landscape scenes of the American mid-west and are the largest of Duncanson’s paintings. He painted decorative triumph l’oeil (fool the eye) columns and arches to simulate stone-carved architecture that surround each painting. Landscape subjects eventually went out of style, and the paintings were covered with wall paper. They were discovered in 1933, and are now restored in their original location. The Belmont estate is now Cincinnati’s Tate Museum of Art.
An abolitionist minister and editor of the Detroit Tribune, Reverence James Francis Conover, commissioned Duncanson in 1853 to paint “Uncle Tom and Little Eva” (1853) (27.25’’ x 39.25’’). Duncanson used the original engraving of the same scene by Tom Billings for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Uncle Tom and Little Eva are depicted in discussion about salvation and becoming free through spiritual love and sacrifice. Duncanson added a peaceful sunset and the surrounding garden of St. Clare villa on Lake Pontchartrain. Traditionally, the subject of a commissioned work is determined by the commissioner, in this instance Reverend Conover. This painting is unique in Duncanson’s work. Although the Abolitionist movement was extremely strong in Cincinnati and many wealthy abolitionist patrons supported his work, this piece was the only commission of the subject. Duncanson’s huge popularity and success rested entirely upon his compelling landscapes.
Duncanson was able to travel to Europe in 1853 for the grand tour, sponsored by the Freeman’s Aid Society and the Anti-Slave League in Cincinnati. In a letter to a friend on January 22, 1854, Duncanson wrote: “English landscapes were better than any in Europe, and the English are great in water color while the French are better historical painters than the English. I am disgusted with our Artists in Europe. They are mean Copiests[sic]. My trip to Europe has to some extent enabled me to judge my own talent. Of all the landscapes I saw in Europe (and I saw thousands) I do not feel discouraged.” Indeed, Duncanson’s talent and success grew.
“Landscape with Rainbow” (1859) (30’’x52’’)(SAAM), exhibited in 1862, received praise from the Cincinnati Gazette, and Duncanson was called “the best landscape painter in the West.” The panoramic pastoral landscape depicts a couple strolling in a pasture while a small herd of cattle walks calmly toward a distant cottage. A few puddles from the recent rain dot the fertile landscape, and a rainbow touches down above the roof of the cottage. All is in harmony, man and nature. The rainbow adds a specific meaning to the painting. Symbolic of peace and forgiveness, it recalls the end of the flood in Genesis, when God forgave mankind: “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” (Genesis 9:13)
This painting may look familiar. It became instantly famous on January 20, 2021, when it was presented to President Joseph Biden and Dr. Jill Biden in the United States Capitol during the Inauguration Ceremony.
Duncanson exiled himself in 1863 to Canada for the duration of the American Civil War. He settled in Montreal and traveled back and forth between Canada and Great Britain. “Waterfall, Mont Morency, Quebec” (1864)(18’’ x 28’’)(SAAM) continues Duncanson’s love of water. As in all of Duncanson’s work, a few small-scale figures are set against the beauty and peace of panoramic landscape. The subtle zigzag composition, explored in “Blue Hole, Flood Waters Little Miami River” allows the viewer to move slowly thought the scene and take in its splendor. Duncanson’s stay in Canada was significant for the newly forming Canadian interest in art. He inspired the development of the first Canadian school of landscape painting. Canadian writers credit Duncanson as being one on of “the earliest of our professional cultivators of the fine arts.”
Inspired by his father’s heritage, Duncanson made frequent visits to Scotland “Ellen’s Isle, Loch Katrina” (1871) (28.5” x 49”) was inspired by The Lady of the Lake, Sir Walter Scott’s poem of 1810. The poem was very popular with American Abolitionist and African-American leaders, including Duncanson’s contemporary Frederick Douglas (1818-1895). Both men read Scott’s poem and visited Loch Katrina. Britain abolished slavery in its colonies in 1833, and was popular with African-American tourists. Ellen’s Isle in Loch Katrina was a popular tourist destination. Frederick Douglas, after changing his name many times to avoid capture, chose the name Frederick from one of Scott’s characters. The painting hangs in Detroit Institute of Art. “For Duncanson, the boat crossing the water in this painting symbolized African-American slaves’ passage to freedom and their hope for a better world. (DIA website. November 14, 2020). “
Upon the re-discovery of Duncanson’s work in the mid-Twentieth Century several art historians have interpreted the themes of his landscapes to include subtle political messages about the horror of slavery. The small figures in his paintings are thought to be African Americans, who while appreciating the beauty of nature, actually live in a world which is the antithesis of the peace depicted in his paintings. Art historian Joseph D. Ketner puts forthin his 1994 book the idea that Duncanson was a cultural leader in Cincinnati: “Duncanson revealed his own anti-slavery beliefs and substantiated his proclamation of sympathy with the plight of his fellow African-Americans as an ardent activist in abolitionist causes.” Other art historians disagree with this hypothesis. When asked by his son to be pro-active in the Abolitionist Movement, Duncanson stated “I have no color on the brain. All I have on the brain is paint…I care not for color. Love is my principle, order is the basis, progress is the end.”
Duncanson made his last trip to Scotland in 1870-71. In America his Scottish paintings were huge successes. Unfortunately, he began suffering from bouts of dementia, possibly brought on by lead poisoning or suspected schizophrenia. He thought he was possessed by a female master painter from the past. He suffered a seizure while setting up an exhibition in Detroit in 1872, resulting in three months spent in a sanatorium. He died at the age fifty-one in 1872. He is buried in the family plot in Woodland Cemetery in Monroe, Michigan. Written on the wall of his studio in Cincinnati were these words: “The mere imitation of the form and colors of nature is not art, however perfect the resemblance. True art is the development of the sentiments and principles of the human soul–natural objects being the medium of illustration.”
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.