Duncanson, Robert Seldon – American Artist

A Robert Selden Duncanson oil on canvas painting, Native American Indians Hunting

p4A ItemID D9875150
2012 image: Robert Selden Duncanson oil painting, Ohio River Valley Landscape

p4A ItemID D9792751
Robert Selden Duncanson oil painting, Robbing the Eagle's Nest

p4A ItemID D9755196
An oil on academy board landscape painting, initialed "MPW" and dated 1894, depicts an Ohio River Valley landscape with town

p4A ItemID D9704372

Robert Seldon Duncanson (American, 1821 to 1872)

Contemporary research has established that the painter’s name was Robert Selden Duncanson, his middle name was not Scott as previously thought, according to Professor Joseph D. Ketner II of Emerson College in Boston, who has studied Duncanson for over 36 years. The definitive source for the name was discovered by Julie Aronson, a curator at the Cincinnati Museum of Art. Aronson discovered the correct name in an article “Artists and the Fine Arts Among Colored People” in the January 1860 issue of Repository of Religion and Literature. Ketner reports that in 1924 an amateur historian in Ohio misidentified and published Duncanson’s father as a white Scotsman. In fact both the artist’s parents were free persons of color. This error has been repeated many times over the intervening years. Ketner believes that it may be that the erroneous Scottish parentage morphed into the belief that the S. in the artist’s name stood for Scott. An extensively detailed report on this research was printed in the May 2012 issue of the Maine Antique Digest, page 12-A.

p4A.com Editorial Staff May 2012.

Robert Seldon Duncanson, who is often mistakenly called Robert Scott Duncanson, was a premier American landscape painter also known in Canada, England, and Scotland for his artistic talent. An African-American born into a family of house painters and carpenters, Duncanson had loftier goals and taught himself to paint still lifes and portraits, moving on to landscapes, for which he is best known, in the late 1840s.

Duncanson created the majority of his Ohio River Valley landscape paintings in the 1850s, a period when he was also collaborating with the African-American photographer and abolitionist, James Presley Ball (1825 to 1904). These two artists exhibited their works together at Ball’s Cincinnati studio and also mentored younger artists, many of whom had immigrated to Cincinnati in order to learn more about the art trade.

Duncanson clearly worked within the regional landscape tradition pioneered a generation earlier by John James Audubon (1785 to 1851) and Joseph Mason (1802 to 1842), making excursions in local rivers for inspiration and to gather precise records of topography, flora and fauna. Duncanson’s travels were by necessity confined to emancipated regions, specifically Ohio and Michigan. His works are typically monumental in scale and spiritual in tone, as seen in the canvas here.

Duncanson also traveled and lived in Canada and England during the Civil War years, where his depiction of Tennyson’s The Lotus Eaters was highly praised, even delighting the poet himself. By the late 1860s and early 1870s, Duncanson’s fame had grown and he was known as “the greatest landscape painter in the west”.

Information courtesy of Neal Auction Company, May 2012.

Robert Seldon Duncanson [also known as Robert Scott Duncanson] was born in New York to a Scottish-Canadian father and a mother of Anglo-African descent. He spent his early years in Monroe, Michigan with his father and where he learned ornamental painting. In 1841, he moved to Cincinnati hoping to become an artist. There he earned commissions and exhibited. Traveling often between Cincinnati and Detroit, Duncanson dabbled in landscape, still life, and history painting, but it was not until the late 1840s that landscape painting became his mainstay.

In 1850, both he and William Louis Sonntag had studios in the Apollo Building. Nicholas Longworth, Cincinnati’s most enthusiastic art patron, hired Duncanson to decorate his mansion, Belmont (now the Taft Museum). Longworth was so impressed with his work that he took Duncanson on the Grand Tour in 1853-4. This trip furthered his inspired his landscapes. In the late 1850s, he also painted portraits of some of the city’s leading abolitionists, and he colored photographs for African American photographer James P. Ball. During the Civil War, Duncanson avoided the turmoil by traveling in the North and then settling in Montreal. The 1860s saw him achieve high praise in Scotland and England. Visiting Scotland had so impressed the artist that upon his return to Cincinnati, he began painting Scottish landscapes, and he continued to do so, alternating with Ohio Valley and Great Lakes scenes the remainder of his career. By this time, however, despite the accomplishment of his painting, he began to battle mental illness that was, according to biographer Joseph D. Ketner, brought on by years of exposure to lead paint. He died in Detroit in 1872.

Duncanson is widely regarded as the first African-American artist to achieve international recognition and was a key figure in translating the Hudson River School style of landscape into an Ohio Valley context. See Ketner, The Emergence of the African-American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson, 1821-1872, particularly chapter 8 which discusses Duncanson’s post-Civil War interest in Scottish landscapes, The Golden Age: Cincinnati Painters of the Nineteenth Century Represented in the Cincinnati Art Museum, and Haverstock et al, Artists in Ohio, 1787-1900. This work was exhibited at the Golden Era of Art exhibition mounted in 1978 by the Indian Hill Historical Museum Association, and retains its exhibition label on verso.

Information courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions Inc., May, 2005.


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