Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

A painter of color without prejudice

IT is not unusual for artists to feel a sense of ``otherness'' from society in general. In America, black artists additionally may experience what the black scholar and writer, W.E.B. DuBois, expressed dramatically: ``One ever feels his two-ness - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.... The history of the American Negro is the history of ... this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In merging he wishes neither of the old selves to be lost.'' Robert Scott Duncanson was born about 1821 of a mother who was probably a free black, and a Scottish-Canadian father. He may have developed a sense of three-ness, as an American, a Negro, and an artist. After living in Canada, young Duncanson moved back to the United States in 1841, settling in a village near where his mother was raised outside Cincinnati.

At that time Cincinnati was entering a period of booming prosperity. By midcentury it had become a major regional art center. The Western Art Union made available to Cincinnati artists landscapes of well-known Eastern painters: Asher B. Durand, Martin Johnson Heade, Thomas Doughty, and others.

About these ads

Duncanson seems to have accomplished much of his art training by copying engravings of famous paintings - a method that can produce excellent results in composition and drawing when assiduously applied by a naturally talented artist. In only a year after his arrival in Ohio, the young painter exhibited a portrait, a genre painting, and a religious subject at the quaintly named Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge.

Very likely, the artist was showcasing a variety of themes in order to attract patrons. Still-life paintings of flowers and fruit that were very popular at the time established his early reputation. He also painted portraits.

When daguerreotypes were introduced, he formed an affiliation with a prominent black businessman who owned the largest daguerrean gallery in the West. He may also have used these photographs as the basis for his later panoramic paintings.

Pre-Civil War Cincinnati had strong links to the South, both economically and socially. But there was also a very active antislavery movement in the expanding Midwestern metropolis. Both blacks and whites patronized the daguerreotype gallery. Duncanson drew support from Abolitionists and other progressive whites. Nicholas Longworth, a wealthy lawyer, commissioned him to paint a suite of eight large landscape murals for the main entrance of his mansion, which has since become an art museum.

In 1853, Duncanson made a trip to Europe. He may have been financed by the Anti-Slavery League. It was a common practice of the time for public-spirited citizens and organizations to further the educations and skills of local artists by sponsoring their travel abroad so that, on their return, they might bring added luster to the culture of their hometown.

In pre-Civil War politics, it was also vital to the antislavery movement to demonstrate that blacks were fully as capable as whites in all respects.

After viewing landscapes, both actual and painted, in England, France, and Italy, Duncanson wrote: ``My trip to Europe has to some extent enabled me to judge of my own talent. Of all the landscapes I saw in Europe (and I saw thousands) I do not feel discouraged.''

About these ads

Of course, like all American artists who went abroad, he brought home sketches to be worked into paintings of antique ruins and exotic scenery.

``Landscape with Rainbow'' is an example of his lyrical, mature style, beautifully painted in the smoothly detailed style characteristic of the period, yet personally perceived.

His preoccupation with light was evidenced even in his first somewhat awkward Ohio landscape. Here it produces a canvas anticipating somewhat the later luminist paintings of the Hudson River artists.

Sunlight and the rainbow divide the scene horizontally, with the fore and middle grounds still in the shadow of the just-ended drenching shower. The area is done in shaded browns and brownish-greens. The woman's red dress (held above the rain-soaked grass) is the only bit of vivid color.

Duncanson plainly delighted in painting bright touches of sunlight gilding the top of the somber tree at left, patches of grass, flowers, and rills of water still trickling over the rocky ground.

The rainbow is a tremulous swath of light only very delicately tinted with color on the arc. And the tiny farmhouse nestled in the trees is the destination of the meticulously delineated cows, the couple admiring the rainbow, and their indifferent dog.

On the sunny side of the rainbow, the lake and hills are flooded with a golden light, clouds of varying tints, and formations modulate the clearing sky. Mauves and pinks color the distant hills.

It is a romantic, pastoral scene of man in harmony with, and admiring, nature. One feels that had the canvas been signed by George Inness, Duncanson's contemporary, it might have been as popular as ``Peace and Plenty.''

We should remind ourselves that it was painted in 1859 when the social and political climate could not have been more tense as the dark clouds of the Civil War gathered ominously on the national horizon. We may wonder whether Duncanson was unconsciously ignoring the tensions, longing for a tranquil idyll at the rainbow's end, or making a statement that light comes after darkness.

During the early 1860s, the artist traveled more extensively, painting striking landscapes in Minnesota, Vermont, and Canada. He crossed the ocean again in 1865 to spend two years in England and his father's ancestral Scotland.

Duncanson's acclaim and his avoidance of the searing issues of the Civil War sowed the seeds of disaffection between him and at least one of his mother's relatives. The painter answered criticism: ``I have toiled hard, and have earned and gained a name and fame in my profession second to none in the United States. ... I despise no being that God has made for He made all good, you have stated that I have all my life tried to pass for white. Shame on you! Shame!! I have no color on the brain; all I have on the brain is paint.''

Over a century later, aside from the fact that we now expect black artists to communicate the specialness of the black experience rather than delineating that of humanhood, the recognition that comes from prestigious art galleries, museums, and collectors is still bestowed largely by the white wealthy.

And even in these 1980s, black artists of the caliber of Robert Scott Duncanson are excluded from histories of American art and from overall exhibits as a consequence. While he died at the height of his powers, Duncanson left us a legacy of landscape paintings equal to any of his time.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.