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Robert S. Duncanson

Also Known as: Robert Scott Duncanson, Robert Duncanson

Born:
New York 1821

Died:
Detroit, Michigan 1872

Active in:

  • Cincinnati, Ohio
  • England
  • Scotland
  • Italy

Biography

Active in Cincinnati, Ohio, after 1840, Robert Scott Duncanson aspired to greatness as a landscape painter. By the 1860s the American press proclaimed him the "best landscape painter in the West," while London newspapers hailed him as the equal of his British contemporaries. Both then and now he rivaled the achievements of American landscape painters such as Thomas Cole, Asher Brown Durand, and John Frederick Kensett, who shaped the country's early landscape tradition in the Hudson River Valley style.

A mature example of Duncanson's art, Landscape with Rainbow[SAAM, 1983.95.160] belies his initially intuitive, schematic style. At mid-century, Cincinnati was a major regional art center where landscape painting flourished because of the city's cultural oppor-tunities and southern Ohio's appealingly unspoiled terrain. Exposure to paintings in the Hudson River style and travel throughout Canada, England, France, and Italy stimulated Duncanson's inherent talent. The well-accepted practice of copying engravings after paintings by other artists and his experiences as a diorama painter and photographer enhanced his technical skills. Landscape with Rainbow reflects the benefits of Duncanson's first trip to Europe in 1853. There he saw the paintings of seventeenth-century French landscapist Claude Lorrain, whose emphasis on classically organized compositions and atmospheric effects influenced so many American painters. In this painting, for example, Duncanson has organized a vast expanse along diagonals created by rock formations, lakes and streams, stands of trees, and mountain slopes. Washed by golden light, the broad pastoral scene exemplifies Duncanson's preference for nature's harmony and beauty rather than the terror and power of its forces. His traveling companion—landscapist William Louis Sonntag—also proved instrumental, for although the two men did not share a student/teacher relationship, Duncanson learned from Sonntag's meticulous technique and evocative use of color.

Tragically, mental illness ended the artist's career and life, a circumstance perhaps attributable as much to long-term lead poisoning as to the social and personal pressures of his interracial heritage. Ultimately, however, the psychological difficulties that he suffered do not diminish his ambitions and accomplishments as a photographer, muralist, and painter.

Lynda Roscoe Hartigan African-American Art: 19th and 20th-Century Selections (brochure. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art)

Additional Biographies

Luce Artist Biography

Robert S. Duncanson was one of the few landscape painters of African American descent to achieve international recognition. His father was a Canadian of Scottish descent, and his mother was black. He spent his teenage years as a housepainter in Monroe, Michigan, but moved to Cincinnati in 1840 to become an artist (The Taft Museum, Hudson Hill Press, 1995). His work attracted the attention of Nicholas Longworth, a wealthy landowner and patron who had supported the sculptor Hiram Powers. Longworth commissioned Duncanson to paint a series of murals in his home and, with other prominent Cincinnati residents, sponsored the young artist’s trip to Europe. Duncanson felt his own paintings measured up to the work of European artists, commenting that “of all the landscapes I saw in Europe (and I saw thousands) I do not feel discouraged.” (1854, Platt R. Spencer Collection, Newberry Library, Chicago, quoted in “Robert Duncanson: The Late Literary Landscape Paintings,” Ketner, American Art Journal, Winter 1983)