How self-taught black artist, Robert S. Duncanson, became the best landscape painter of the West in the mid-1800s

Stephen Nartey February 20, 2023
Robert S. Duncanson/Photo credit: Wikipedia

Courage, dexterity, profound cultures, and influential leaders; when it comes to black history, there is a plethora of stories that have inspired and impacted generations. From inventors to intellectuals, civil rights activists to creatives, there is an unending list of great achievers who made their mark on the global sphere. Among such figures, history books credit Robert S. Duncanson as one of the best landscape painters of the mid-1800s.

Known for his exceptional skills, he was one of the few black artists who rubbed shoulders with British and American landscape painters such as John Fredrick Kensett, Asher Brown Durand, and Thomas Cole. His style of painting helped to influence the painting culture in the Hudson River Valley.

Whereas many landscape painters learned their art by understudying well-established artists, Robert remarkably developed his technique on his own, causing historians to describe him as a self-taught painter who picked his inspiration from the Hudson River Valley, particularly from William L. Sonntag, a renowned American landscape artist in the 1800s.

After his birth in 1817 in Northern New York, Robert contended with the chains of racial discrimination suffered by many African Americans, and was always reminded he was a son of a Scottish father and a mulatto mother.

These prejudices inspired his father’s decision to send him to Canada to study his formal education. However, he was not comfortable staying in Canada and yearned to relocate to the United States. In 1840, he relocated to the US and moved in with his mother in Ohio. He later turned his attention to Cincinnati, where he practiced his trade as an artist between Monroe and Detroit.

Growing up, his family earned a living in the carpentry and painting business; for him, this was just an occupational tradition passed on from generation to generation. Robert naturally picked the art of painting and built on his family’s legacy, honing his skill by copying print and drawing portraits for clients interested in his work; which caused some of his early works to be publicized in the Monroe Gazette.

Though he built a good customer base in Monroe, Robert was not content living the life of an average tradesman like his grandparents. His strong ambition to succeed motivated him to strive for a higher purpose. Though he was subtle in criticizing the establishment of slavery, critics and art enthusiasts say he showed a soft spot for creating images that condemned suppression.  

He then made the big break he had anticipated in 1848 when he worked on the “Cliff Mine, lake Superior,” a masterpiece commissioned by anti-slave activist, Charles Avery. He later entered into a lifelong partnership with civil rights activists and abolitionists who influenced his philosophy.

Many of his paintings centered on landscapes he had seen during his tours of Europe and Canada, which inspired him to paint scenes of the wild from those places. It was however speculated that his trips to Europe were sponsored by the Anti-Slavery League and the Freemen’s Aid Society, but in some of Robert’s 1853 letters, he asserted that those trips were purposed to boost his confidence and compare his works with those done by the best. It offered him an opportunity to do a much-needed introspection of his paintings and sharpen his skill.

When Robert passed away at the age of 55 in 1872, his paintings and name sadly slipped into oblivion, but recently resurfaced into relevance during an exhibition held at the Cincinnati Art Museum on the centenary of his death, the Smithsonian magazine reported. This sparked the interest of art lovers and critics who have explored his collections.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: February 20, 2023


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