Editor's note: The Taft Museum of Art provided
source material to Resource Library Magazine for the following article
or essay. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material,
please contact the Taft Museum of Art directly through either this phone
number or web address:
Robert S. Duncanson: Small
Paintings from Ohio Collections
July 14 - October 17, 2004
(above: Robert S. Duncanson, Mayan
Ruins, Yucatan, 1848, oil on canvas. The Dayton Art Institute, museum
purchase with funds provided by the Daniel Blau Endowment)
Robert S. Duncanson
(18211872) painted the suite of eight landscape murals and two overdoor
floral vignettes in the Museum's foyer in about 1850, when it was the private
home of Nicholas Longworth. This commission launched the young artist's
career and set him on the path to becoming the first African American artist
to achieve an international reputation. The four paintings in this exhibition
were selected to provide context for the mural commission
and to shed light on the development of Duncanson's style. (right:
Robert S. Duncanson, Mount Trempe'lOue on the Upper Mississippi,
1870, oil on canvas. Private collection)
Duncanson descended from an emancipated Virginia slave,
Charles Duncanson, who moved north to Fayette, New York, prior to 1790 to
escape the slave system. Charles's son, John Dean, and his wife, Lucy, raised
a family of seven children, including Robert. The family even-tually moved
to Monroe, Michigan, where Robert apprenticed in the family trades of house
painting and carpentry.
Yearning to be an artist, Duncanson moved to Cincinnati
in 1840, determined to break into the exclusively Caucasian art community.
He taught himself art by painting portraits and copying prints. He also
studied the style of the Hudson River school of painting, which had been
established as early as 1825 when William Cullen Bryant and other poets
called on artists to paint the wilderness as a symbol of the American nation.
By 1850 Longworth described Duncanson as "one of our
most promising painters" and "a man of great industry and worth."
- Abby S. Schwartz
- Curator of Education
Object labels from the exhibition:
- Abandoned Mill Scene, about 1848
- Oil on canvas
- Taft Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Cohen, 1992.1
- Duncanson's landscape painting style was influenced by his colleague
William Louis Sonntag (18221900), whose studio adjoined Duncanson's
on Fourth Street in Cincinnati. Under Sonntag's influence, Duncanson began
primarily to produce landscapes.
- In this early work, the young artist's emerging under-standing of spatial
relationships is revealed. The lonely mill, set in the middle ground, is
framed by trees and illuminated by sunlight streaming through clouds. It
foretells the more romantic, spiritual style of the suite of murals he
would soon execute for Longworth's home, where the theme of the cabin or
cottage nestled in the woods was repeated with a more expansive palette
and a greater awareness of light as a means of defining space.
- Mayan Ruins, Yucatan, 1848
- Oil on canvas
- The Dayton Art Institute. Museum purchase with funds provided by the
Daniel Blau Endowment, 1984.105
- As did many painters of his time, Duncanson turned to illustrations
in books and periodicals to find inspira-tion for his paintings. In the
1840s, two Englishmen, John Stevens and Frederick Catherwood, published
an illustrated account of their travels in Central America. One of those
engravings was likely the inspiration for this canvas, because Duncanson
never traveled to South or Central America.
- This fantastic composition bears only superficial resemblance to actual
Mayan ruins. Duncanson was unable to render convincingly the architectural
details of the Mayan monuments and the effect of the tropical foliage of
the Yucatan peninsula.
- Woodland Pool, 1868
- Oil on canvas
- Collection of James G. Rust, Sr.
- With the completion of the murals, which challenged Duncanson's technical
capabilities because of their vast scale and complexity, the artist's career
was formally launched. He went on to enjoy critical and popular success
in Canada, Scotland, and England.
- In the 1860s he fled to Canada to escape the Civil War and was influenced
by the wilderness landscape and the photography of William Notman (18261891).
Duncanson pursued a more realistic rendering of his landscape views and
moved away from imaginary com-positions and fantastic subjects. This canvas,
painted after he returned to Cincinnati in the winter of 186667, evidences
a greater sense of naturalism than his earlier landscapes.
- Mount Trempe l'Oue on the Upper Mississippi, 1870
- Oil on canvas
- Lent by the Queen City Club, Cincinnati
- In 1869 Duncanson revisited the upper Mississippi River and Canada,
retracing the path he had taken on an earlier trip. This canvas exemplifies
the final style of his career. Unlike his earlier picturesque compositions
with framed views and receding diagonals, this canvas has a more natural
treatment of light and an open-ended composition. Its soft glow lends a
nostalgic air and carries a message of solitude and reverie.
- In October 1872, while hanging a show in Detroit, Duncanson suffered
a nervous breakdown. Interned at the Michigan State Hospital, he died two
months later. Regarded during his lifetime as the "best land-scape
painter in the West," Duncanson was a crucial figure marking the emergence
of the African American artist.
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional
source by visiting the sub-index page for the Taft
Museum of Art in Resource Library
Visit the Table
of Contents for Resource Library Magazine for
thousands of articles and essays on American art, calendars, and much more.
Copyright 2003, 2004 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights