Robert S. Duncanson: Nineteenth-Century African American Landscape Painter

Robert Scott Duncanson (American 1821-1872), Maiden's Rock, Lake Pepin, 1862. Oil on canvas. Gift of William MacBeth, Inc, AC 1950.8

Robert Scott Duncanson (American, 1821–1872), Maiden’s Rock, Lake Pepin, 1862. Oil on canvas. Gift of William MacBeth, Inc, AC 1950.8

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.

Robert Duncanson (1821-1872), Wikimedia Commons

Robert Duncanson (1821–1872). Wikimedia Commons

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.

Swedish Royal Collection, Stockholm, Wikimedia Commons

Robert Duncanson, The Land of the Lotus Eaters, 1861. Swedish Royal Collection, Stockholm. Wikimedia Commons

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

Views of Washington, DC: Jacob Kainen’s Residential Facades

The mid-twentieth-century painting Residential Facades by American artist Jacob Kainen uses dynamic, contrasting colors and eccentric architectural forms to communicate a sense of life. The Mead acquired this painting in the summer of 2014, a gift of the Jacob Kainen Art Trust. Today, which would have been Kainen’s 105th birthday (December 7, 1909–March 19, 2001), we look briefly at the artist’s life, and at three Residential Facades inspired by the architecture of Washington, DC.

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Jacob Kainen (American 1909–2001), Residential Facades, 1948. Oil on linen. Gift of the Jacob Kainen Art Trust, AC 2014.113

An ominous gray cloud seeps in from the outer edges of the Mead’s Residential Facades (1948), and dense blue-green bushes threaten to overrun the townhouses. These intimidating elements are held back by the clear blue sky that swells above the rooftops and the white and yellow houses that seem to protect whoever may be in the house.

The houses themselves, Victorian row houses that Kainen observed and sketched on his daily walk to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, where he worked as curator in the Division of Graphic Arts, angle up and out in unnatural ways, lending an air of surrealism to the painting.

Combining realistic representation with abstract forms was typical of Kainen’s constantly evolving artistic style. He began his career as a painter in New York, where he was mentored by the modern artist Arshile Gorky. Kainen’s interest in architecture probably grew out of the long walks he and Gorky took around New York almost every day together in the 1930s, while Gorky commented on the “predatory” architecture of the buildings (Berman 24).

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Jacob Kainen (American 1909–2001), Residential Facade, 1949. Etching. Gift of the Jacob Kainen Art Trust, AC 2014.118

Kainen’s decision to leave the vibrant and developing art scene of New York in 1942 for what started out as a temporary position as an aide in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington turned out to be life changing. His tremendous work ethic and capacity for knowledge about art eventually led to a permanent position and enabled him to thrive in his professional life outside the museum as an artist, teacher, scholar, and mentor.

The Smithsonian Museum of American Art has an extensive collection of Kainen’s work, including another view of Washington row houses completed in 1949, also titled Residential Facades. This painting, while clearly influenced by the same type of Washington architecture as the Mead’s Residential Facades, evokes different feelings through color and style. George Hemphill, who was a friend of the artist and owns an art gallery in Washington, says that Kainen described to him “how ‘emotional’ his response to the architecture of Washington was.” This insight establishes that the artist’s interpretation of buildings goes beyond superficial observation in both Residential Facades.

Jacob Kainen (American, 1909–2001). Residential Facades, 1949. Gouache on paper. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Christopher and Alexandra Middendorf, 1991.7.8

Jacob Kainen (American, 1909–2001), Residential Facades, 1949. Gouache on paper. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Christopher and Alexandra Middendorf, 1991.7.8

The cheerful yellow, orange, and red hues and the flat, two-dimensional facades in the Smithsonian’s version contrast with the darker greens and blues, and sense of depth, in the Mead’s. Although both paintings feature turrets and decorative windows, and focus on architectural forms, the Mead’s Residential Facades expresses deeper, more intense emotion than the lively row of pink, red, and orange.

Because he had struggled to find employment as a young man in New York during the Depression, working off and on for the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in the Division of Graphic Arts, Kainen felt inspired to use his artwork to bring attention to the problems and uncertainties people inevitably face in life. One of the turrets in Residential Facades (1948) seems to sway in the wind, while chimneystacks and sharp edges interrupt the blue sky above the house. Although there are no people in the painting, Kainen still conveys the uncertainty and fear many feel, which gives the somewhat fantastical houses a purpose. In this way, Residential Facades (1948) is not just a painting meant to show off Washington’s architecture, but a fulfillment of Kainen’s desire to make art that would “give off an aura of human experience” (Berman 21).

Image Sources: 1/2

Agee, William C., and Avis Berman. Jacob Kainen. Edited by Walter Hopps. Washington, DC: National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1993.

Written by Catherine Rose O’Brien, Class of 2017

 

From the Collection: Works by Vadim Sidur

 

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This simple, yet elegant drawing by Russian artist Vadim Sidur joined the collection in 2001. Sidur specialized in monumental sculpture during the last Stalinist years. He was going to participate in the re-building of Moscow after World War II, but Stalin died in 1953, and in the mid-1950s Sidur abandoned the Socialist Realist vocabulary that would form the style of the postwar revisions. The officials regarded his non-canonical art as formalist and pacifist, and therefore prevented him from exhibiting in Russia. Despite this prohibition, Sidur never left his native country.

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Sidur began making drawings after suffering a heart attack in 1961. In the work above, titled Faces, he achieved a quality of sculptural volume on a flat surface. The monumentality and dynamism of ancient sculpture, which had fascinated Sidur since childhood, resonates. Perhaps because of his two encounters with death (the other, during WW II) his work typically addressed existential questions about life, death, and family. The three people represented here are graphically linked, symbolizing the need for human support within a hostile social and political environment.

image sources: 1 / 2