Robert S. Duncanson was born in 1821. He was a Black artist.
From Seneca, New York, his parents were both mulatto. Robert Seldon Duncanson’s father earned a living as handymen and house painters. This background may have given Duncanson the opportunity to learn, informally, the craft and art of mixing pigments, working with brushes and paints and preparing and repairing surfaces. He is considered a self-taught artist. Duncanson decided early in his life that art would become his career and not just a hobby. In 1839, the Freedman’s Aid Society of Ohio raised money to send him to Glasgow, Scotland to study painting. Upon his return he went to live in Cincinnati where portrait and landscape painting were in demand.
Through the Western Art Union Duncanson was exposed to the prominent Hudson River School. By 1842 he was ready to exhibit his work in public. His first exhibition was sponsored by the Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge and opened the door for Duncanson to increase his visibility. He accepted several portrait commissions of abolitionists and other prosperous Cincinnati citizens. In 1853, he went to Europe and then returned to paint classical motifs into his landscapes, obviously influenced by his exposure in Europe to Neo-Classicism. During the Civil War, he was in England and Scotland and in 1872, suffered a mental breakdown and died shortly after.
Although not very well known by the general public, Duncanson had a significant impact on American art. As the first American painter to take up residence in Canada and focus on its landscape, Duncanson’s influence has been felt there as well. At a gallery showing in Harlem, the New York Amsterdam News called the works by Duncanson “pioneering.” It is not the genre he chose to paint in that was pioneering, it was the subtle way he infused his paintings with an African American sensibility without creating what the art world would categorize as African American paintings.
Audiences looking at Duncanson’s work have to concentrate, beyond the obvious associations with themes of landscape and idealized lands, to see the commentary on a post Civil War America and a socially aware African American artist. Instead, Richard Powell of American Visions says that Duncanson’s success is a “victory over society’s presumptions of what African American artist should create.” Duncanson’s artwork has become a useful tool in teaching art students about the history of African American artists. Robert Duncanson died on December 21, 1872.