In Robert Duncanson’s painting Maiden’s Rock, Lake Pepin, a sailboat glides over white-capped waves, between towering rock formations and under a sky tinged with pink and filled with white clouds. The serenity of this scene derives from Duncanson’s use of muted colors and his soft, visible brushstrokes. The sense of calm and focus on natural beauty are features of almost all of Duncanson’s work. In 1862, the Cincinnati Gazette called Duncanson the “best landscape painter in the West” (Oxford Art Online). Duncanson was a rarity in the nineteenth century as a successful African American painter who achieved international recognition.
A descendant of freed slaves from Virginia, Duncanson grew up in Michigan and was trained in house painting and carpentry, both family trades. While some sources claimed he was of Scottish descent, recent scholarship has determined that he had a multiracial background, and that his great-grandfather was likely a plantation owner. In 1841 Duncanson moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, considered the “Athens of the West,” to pursue art as a career. He taught himself to paint and began working with Hudson River School artists such as William Sonntag. Soon, Duncanson’s patrons included white abolitionists and prominent citizens who supported African American artists. One such patron, the wealthy horticulturalist Nicholas Longworth, hired Duncanson to paint eight landscape murals in his Cincinnati mansion. Joseph D. Ketner, author of a book about Duncanson called The Emergence of the African-American Artist (1994), called the murals “the most ambitious and accomplished domestic mural paintings in antebellum America.” With his success, Duncanson was able to travel to Europe in 1853 to study the great masters.
Although most of Duncanson’s paintings show no signs of racial tension or antislavery views, the artist was involved in the abolitionist movement in Cincinnati and produced paintings for the antislavery presentation Ball’s Splendid Mammoth Pictorial Tour of the United States. His most acclaimed work, The Land of the Lotus Eaters (1861), shows European influence in both subject and style, but there are also subtle references to slavery in the United States in the depiction of white soldiers being served by men with darker skin. Around 1863, while the Civil War was being fought at home, Duncanson traveled to Canada and then Europe. In Canada he helped develop and influence a community of artists, before leaving for Europe in 1865 to exhibit The Land of the Lotus Eaters. In Great Britain and other countries aristocrats and royals alike received the work with great praise, including the king of Sweden. The painting is now part of the Swedish Royal Collection in Stockholm.
The Mead acquired Duncanson’s 1862 work Maiden’s Rock, Lake Pepin in 1950 through the art historian and dealer Robert McIntyre, who was president and director of the Macbeth Gallery, owned by his uncle William Macbeth, in New York. The work is a skillful and expressive representation of the beauty of the natural world. Lake Pepin is a widening of the Mississippi River located about sixty miles south of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a glimpse of the river can be seen stretching beyond the cliff on the left. Duncanson’s painting is part of the Mead’s well-established collection of nineteenth-century American landscape paintings, which includes works by Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Asher Brown Durand. Recognition of Duncanson as part of this significant group of American artists has grown in recent years, and both the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston have Duncanson landscapes currently on view. (Click here to see the Metropolitan’s Duncanson, and here to see the MFA’s.)
Duncanson’s career is not easily categorized – he is both an important American landscape painter and a rare example of an African American artist who succeeded as a painter at a time when the profession was dominated by white men. The MFA Boston identifies Duncanson along with Grafton Tyler Brown (1841–1918) and Edward Mitchell Bannister (1833–1901) as the three African American painters who “achieve[d] . . . popular success in the nineteenth century” (Boston MFA).
Written by Catherine Rose O’Brien, Class of 2017