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Artists in 60 Seconds: Robert Scott Duncanson

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Photograph provided by Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC; used with permission

Robert Scott Duncanson (American, 1821-1872). Vale of Kashmir, 1870. Oil on canvas. 26 x 49 1/4 in.

Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY

Movement, Style, School or Type of Art:

American Romanticism

Date and Place of Birth:

1821, Fayette, New York

Early Life:

Robert Scott Duncanson was among the few African Americans who established a professional career as an artist during the nineteenth century.  He was born in Seneca County, New York to a Scottish-Canadian white father and African American mother. He grew up in Canada with his father, while his mother lived in Mount Pleasant, Ohio. In 1841, he moved to his mother's home, which was not far from Cincinnati, then a burgeoning metropolis. He eventually settled in that "Athens of the West."

Career:

Duncanson studied art on his own, copying the masters he admired. He was principally influenced by the landscapist Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School. By 1842, he exhibited his portraits and received many commission as a result. He also participated that year in an exhibition sponsored by the Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge, but his family was barred from attendance because of their African American ethnicity.

Duncanson continued to thrive in Cincinnati as he became a much appreciated landscape painter with his views of the Ohio River Valley. In 1851, winemaker Nicholas Longworth (1783-1863) commissioned eight enormous murals from the artist to decorate the foyer of his Palladian style villa, Belmont. Today Longworth's home is the Taft Museum of Art.

Mature Work:

In 1853, Duncanson was asked to illustrate Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and then, financed by the Freeman's Aid Society and the Anti-Slave League, Duncanson departed for a tour of Europe where he discovered the French landscapist Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) and the craze for Orientalism.

Back in Cincinnati in 1854, Duncanson spent the next four years painting and collaborating with the African American photographer and abolitionist activist James Presley Ball (1825-1904) by retouching and painting over Ball's photographs. Together they created the 600-foot long mural entitled the Mammouth Pictorial Tour of the United States Comprising Views of the African Slave Trade (1855).

When the Civil War broke out, Duncanson moved to Montreal and, in 1865, to the United Kingdom, spending most of his time in England and Scotland. He returned to Cincinnati during the winter of 1866-67 and remained there until his death. He died in Detroit at the age of 51 while preparing an exhibition.

Best Known For:

Duncanson is best known for his shimmering, dreamy landscapes that feature enormous vistas, most notably his two paintings entitled Vale of Kashmir, 1864 and 1870.

Important Works:

  • Uncle Tom and Little Eva, 1853, The Detroit Institute of Arts

  • Entryway murals, 1855, Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati

  • The Rainbow, 1859, Museum of African Art

  • Fall of Minnehaha, 1862, Museum of African Art

  • Vale of Kashmir, 1864, Museum of African Art

  • Vale of Kashmir, 1870, Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York

Date and Place of Death:

December 21, 1872, Detroit, Michigan

Sources:

Driskell, David C. Two Centuries of Black American Art.
Los Angeles and New York: Los Angeles County Museum and Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Sims, Lowery Stokes. African American Art: 200 Years.
New York: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 2008.

Ketner II, Joseph D. The Emergence of an African American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson, 1821-1872.
Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993.

Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC

Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati


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