Robert S. Duncanson, Owl's Head Mountain, 1864, oil on canvas, 45.7 x 91.7 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

An American Painter’s lasting Canadian impression

In the United States, landscape painter Robert S. Duncanson is primarily remembered as the first African-American to paint his way to national and international celebrity in defiance of the racial prejudices of his homeland at the time.

Born in 1821, in Fayette, New York, Duncanson worked as a house painter before moving to Cincinnati, Ohio, which was known both for its dynamic art scene and as a hub of anti-slavery activity. Influenced by the Hudson River School of American artists, Duncanson’s successes included an 1850 commission to paint a series of murals in what is now the Taft Museum of Art. Duncanson also toured his large paintings in Europe. His large-scale masterwork, Land of the Lotus Eaters, inspired by a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, was purchased by the King of Sweden and won praise from Tennyson himself.

Duncanson also made a lasting impression in Canada. Living in self-imposed exile in Montreal in the two years before he sailed for Europe, Duncanson brought with him a new sensibility that inspired many Canadian painters to set off in a new direction. Painter Allan Edson was Duncanson’s student, while John Fraser and Otto Jacobi were both strongly influenced by him. Situated as it is alongside Allan Edson’s Landscape with Cascade (1872), John Fraser’s Laurentian Splendor (1880), and Otto Jacobi’s Waterfall (1894) in the National Gallery of Canada’s Canadian and Indigenous Galleries, Duncanson’s Owl’s Head Mountain (1864) highlights this catalytic role.

John A. Fraser, Laurentian Splendour, 1880, oil on canvas, 51.6 x 96.8 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Royal Canadian Academy of Arts diploma work, deposited by the artist, Toronto, 1880. Photo: NGC

 

“Duncanson arrived in Canada — bringing with him these grandiose landscapes of grand historical and literary subjects — at a very formative time, when Canadians were asking themselves ‘who are we?’ and ‘who are we going to become?’” says Joe Ketner, curator at Boston’s Emerson College and Duncanson’s biographer, in an interview with NGC Magazine.

Impressed by the work that Duncanson displayed in Montreal’s Conversazione art exhibitions and at other venues, Canadian painters began to turn away from the Dusseldorf style of landscape painting exemplified by Cornelius Krieghoff and the early Jacobi in order to embrace the romanticism of the Hudson River school. The migration of this romantic style into Canadian painting, Ketner says, is perhaps best seen by comparing Duncanson’s Mount Orford (1864) and Edson’s Mount Orford (1871), two paintings with the same subject and even title, which teacher and student approached in a strikingly similar fashion. 

The exchange went both ways — with Canada also inspiring Duncanson. While he continued to work on his fantastic, imaginative “literary landscapes” during his Canadian stay, Duncanson also painted recognizable Canadian scenes. Ketner says works such as Mount Orford (1864) and Mount Royal (1864) were likely painted because Duncanson recognized there was a dependable market in this country for landscapes depicting real places of iconic national significance. “He was astute enough to realize that if he was going to live in Canada and sell pictures, he had better sell the pictures that his audience wanted,” says Ketner.

 

O.R. Jacobi, Waterfall, 1866, oil on canvas, 68.5 x 58 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

 

Canada also gave Duncanson a secure, nurturing refuge from the turmoil of his homeland. When the artist crossed the border in 1863, it appeared that “the northern forces were going to lose the Civil War,” promising greater trouble for African-Americans, says Ketner. In addition, “as a ‘free person of colour’ during the Civil War, he couldn’t get a passport to leave the United States. So, part of his motivation for coming to Canada was to find a way to tour his big pictures, his ‘great pictures’ as they were called, in England.” In fact, Duncanson displayed his work at the 1865 Irish World’s Fair “as a Canadian in the Canadian Pavilion,” says Ketner.

Duncanson would later return to the United States, where he succumbed to a dementia-like condition, possibly arising from earlier exposure to lead-based house paints. Says Ketner: “Duncanson died in 1872, right at the height of his popularity, when he is recognized as a master and ‘the great painter of Cincinnati.’” He wouldn’t live to see tastes in the U.S. — which, in the midst of a failing post-Civil War reconstruction, was eager to turn its back on the past — shift away from the landscape painting of antebellum-era America.

Since Duncanson re-emerged in the public eye in the 1970s, Americans have most commonly viewed his work through the lens of civil rights struggles. In Canada, meanwhile, he is celebrated for a different reason: as a key figure in the formation of a new national style of landscape painting.

John A. Fraser, Mount Orford, c. 1867, watercolour over graphite on wove paper, 33.8 x 50.7 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

 

Robert S. Duncanson’s work, alongside that of Allan Edson, John Fraser and Otto Jacobi, can be viewed in the National Gallery of Canada’s Canadian and Indigenous Galleries. To share this article, please click on the arrow in the menu bar at the top right of the page.

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