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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.

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