On Thursday evening, September 13, 2012 Independent Curator Joseph Ketnar gave a talk at Columbia’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Fine Arts Center about the life, career and works of Robert S. Duncanson, a mulatto artist living primarily in Ohio in the early 19th century. According to Ketnar, “he earned a reputation as the most important regional landscape painter of the Ohio Valley, and received critical attention in the United States, Canada, and England.”
Among the 27 works exhibited by the artist, Arader Galleries lent the most prominent, large-scale oil painting by Duncanson that Ketnar had admittedly never seen in all his years as the leading Duncanson scholar.
Below is a timeline documenting key events throughout Duncanson’s life:
Robert Seldon Duncanson is born in Seneca County, New York, into a family of free persons of color from Virginia.
Duncanson begins his career as an artist starting a house painting and decorating business
Duncanson moves to the Cincinnati, Ohio area. First exhibits in 1842. Like many of his peers, economic stresses forced him to become an itinerant, and he began traveling across Ohio and Michigan painting portraits, historical, and genre paintings.
On March 19 in Detroit, Duncanson produces ‘Chemical Paintings,’ in which he would paint over photographs for wealthy sitters
Duncanson along with T. Worthington Whittredge and William Louis Sonntag see Thomas Coles’ four painting series Voyage of Life (1842) exhibited at the Western Art Union in Cincinnati. They are all deeply moved by the work. This is a significant turning point in Duncanson’s career as it is from this point forward that he decides to devote himself to landscape paintings and emulates Cole for the remainder of his career. Rather than depict the hardships of Black American life or the political and social animosities of the time, the artist always turned towards the idyllic, pastoral landscape, depicting messages of hope and peace.
Inspired by Cole and the work of the Hudson River School Duncanson, Whittredge and Sonntag take sketching tours around the country. Duncanson focuses on the Ohio River Valley.
Duncanson’s work has drawn the respect of many prominent area abolitionists, including Nicholas Longworth, a real estate magnate active in the anti-slavery movement. Longworth commissions the artist to paint the Belmont Murals in his mansion, now the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati. There are 8 paintings that measure roughly 9 x 7 feet each.
Minister and newspaper editor James Conover commissions Duncanson to paint a scene based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s influential abolitionist novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).
Duncanson travels with his colleague William Sonntag to England; they tour quickly through France and end their ‘grand tour’ in Italy.
1854 – c. 1858
Duncanson works in J. P. Ball’s studio, retouching portraits, coloring prints, and displaying his paintings.
The artist sees Frederic Edwin Church’s Heart of Andes (1859) on its national tour, presented at Pike’s Opera House, Cincinnati. It inspires him to begin his painting Land of Lotus Eaters (1861).
During the bleak years of the Civil War (1861-1865), Duncanson self-exiles to Montreal, Canada, where his work is widely exhibited and greatly respected.
Duncanson journeys to England
Duncanson tours England, Ireland and Scotland. He presents an exhibition that includes Land of the Lotus Eaters. He meets notable aristocratic abolitionists such as Lord Tennyson
Duncanson returns to Cincinnati. He finds that the vibrant arts community of the city has dissipated since his departure but he continues to produce artworks that are visually influenced by his European travels. The painting in the Arader Galleries collection has a circa date of 1867-68 and depicts Ohio River scenery. Maintaining its roots to Ohio, the piece was exhibited at the Cincinnati Museum of Art in 1972, painting no. 35 in the show.
After falling ill with a seizure, Robert S. Duncanson dies in a Detroit sanatorium at age 51.