Mountain Landscapes of Robert Duncanson (1821-1872)

Below are excerps from an article by Robert Alexander Boyle that was originally published in the 21st Anniversary/Spring 2021 issue of Antiques & Fine Art magazine, a fully digitized version of which is available at www.afamag.com.

Robert Duncanson (1821–1872), the Black artist of the Hudson River School, presents a challenge for scholars. His varied output—still life, genre, allegorical subjects, murals, and landscapes—presents a body of work yet to be fully deciphered. Guiding to a deeper interpretation are the extraordinary circumstances of a Black artist in the volatile 1850s, a fulcrum of experience forced between the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862. Recent discoveries of long lost paintings by the artist, period literature and newspaper clippings, and maps and census data provide an eye-opener of context to Duncanson’s artistic journey. Applied to his art, this material reveals the hunger for freedom and basic human rights, all set in perilous but beautiful landscapes.

Robert S. Duncanson

In 2003, a previously unknown work by Duncanson of Asheville, North Carolina, dated 1850, surfaced at Brunk Auctions, also in Asheville Accompanying the painting was a period newspaper from the Asheville Messenger describing Duncanson’s trip to the vicinity in August of 1850. Until the newspaper clipping was found, no proof existed that Duncanson had ever set foot in North Carolina, though works exhibited by him in Cincinnati from 1850 to 1863 had titles invoking the state. The writers of the newspaper article mention that Duncanson had covered a great deal of territory:

Artists Mr. R. S Duncanson and A. O. Moore of Cincinnati, Ohio, have been at our village and vicinity of a fortnight and more, taking sketches of the mountains and river scenery. They have visited Warm Springs, French Broad, Black Mountain, Cumberland Gap, and Hickory Nut Gap. And have a number of correct sketches of the most interesting objects at these places. Mr. Duncanson appears to be a fine artist and has shown us a number of very pretty sketches. We hope he will be amply repaid for his trouble, and if he has them engraved, we have no doubt a large sale will be made of them. We wish him abundant success. Certainly no part of America presents more, nor a greater variety of beautiful and grand scenery than Western Carolina and we are proud that artists are beginning to appreciate it. We are indebted to them for a very beautiful sketch of Hickory Nut Falls.

Robert S. Duncanson (1821–1872), View of Asheville, North Carolina, dated 1850. Inscription: (On back, under lining:) signed R. S. Duncanson. Oil on canvas, 23½ × 32½ inches. Greenville County Museum of Art (03.21.14).
View of Asheville 1850 (Detail)

The Asheville painting is a large panoramic composition view, derivative of Thomas Cole in terms of palette and brush. It is dark and dramatic, and somewhat loose in execution. The historic owner of the canvas prior to its sale was the Patton family of Asheville, and tradition held that it was executed for James W. Patton (1803–1861), who by 1860, was alleged to own seventy-eight slaves; he was one of the largest owners in the area. A smaller painting, similar in subject and date, belongs to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston . In that view, the town of Asheville is framed by gnarled and blasted trees trunks, clearly a devise borrowed from Thomas Cole’s Lake with Dead Trees (1825). The smaller work is believed to have descended in the family of Ernest Israel of Ashville before it arrived in the Museum of Fine Arts Houston collection in the early 2000s. It was a relative of Ernest Israel, named Jerry Israel, also of Asheville, North Carolina, who found the 1850 newspaper article. Jerry worked in the local newspaper business for many years before becoming an expert on the history of the Smokey Mountains as well as a partner in Brunk Auctions.

Robert S. Duncanson (1821–1872), A View of Asheville, North Carolina, 1850. Oil on academy board, panel: 13 × 18-13⁄16 inches. Museum purchase funded by the Susan Vaughan Foundation in memory of Susan Clayton McAshan. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Tx (2001.85).

(Note: The above images were made from a place on today’s Sunset Mountain)

Duncanson’s companion on his southern trip was A. O. Moore, better known to history as Augustus Olcott Moore (1822–1865), an artist then publisher of books on horticulture, who was born in Augusta, Georgia.  Two locations visited by Duncanson and Moore were Warm Springs and the French Broad (River), both in the valleys on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. Travelling up and down the Tennessee River, the largest tributary of the Ohio River, and by extension its remote Smokey Mountain tributaries, would explain how Duncanson and Moore accessed the area, since there were no railroads in that part of the country in 1850. In 2016, another work was brought to auction at The Potomack Company in Washington, D.C., a scene of the French Broad River, on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina (Fig. 3). Similar to the Asheville works, leaning trees bracket the romantic composition left and right; a Cole formula to give the illusion of depth. In the middle, birds flock together before heading north for the summer.

Robert S. Duncanson (1821–1872), French Broad River, circa 1850–1851. Oil on canvas, 17 × 24 inches. Courtesy Private Collection, Bronxville, N.Y. Courtesy Private Collection, NY.

Resulting from that same 1850 trip to the western Smoky Mountains are two paintings, both 16 by 26 inches, possibly originally a pair. Rediscovered separately, one was exhibited in Cincinnati’s Western Art Union, in July 1851. This Eastern Tennessee work was cited in Cincinnati newspapers in the summer of 1851, less than eleven months after the Asheville trip, and described as follows: Duncanson’s View on Clinch River, is a fine picture. It gives a view of the stream for some distance—of a plain on the opposite side, and of hills and mountains in the distance. The water has fine effects, and the distance is revealed as faithfully as in any picture we have seen by this artist, and his distance is good almost invariably.” 

Robert Duncanson “View of Clinch River” 1850
Fig. 4: Robert S. Duncanson (1821–1872), Landscape in the Smoky Mountains, Short Mountain, Tennessee, 1851–1853. Oil on canvas, 16 × 26 inches. Courtesy Winterthur Museum; Museum purchase with funds drawn from the Centenary Fund, Courtesy of Winterthur Museum

Some twenty works of North Carolina and Tennessee have now resurfaced, some of which display a crisper hand or finer draughtsmanship compared to Duncanson’s Cole-influenced earlier romantic vistas. This advancement in technique and use of multiple layers of pigment, and a known canvas in the collection of Walter Evans dated 1856, begs the question as to whether Duncanson returned south or simply revised earlier works in his studio after his European tour of 1853–1854, when he was exposed to the work of the Pre-Raphaelites in England? Though yet to be determined, it’s likely that Duncanson returned to North Carolina in 1856.

Robert Duncanson (1821–1872), Cattle and Rainbow, 1859. Oil on canvas, 30 × 52¼ inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum; Gift of Leonard and Paula Granoff (1983.95.160). (President Joseph Biden was gifted this landscape by The Smithsonian American Art Museum to be added to the art installed in The White House)

Blogger note: Robert Duncanson emerged as the top African-American artists of the 19th century. His bravery in coming South in the 1850’s prior to The Civil War gave him a special place in the history of the Abolitionist movement. His talents compare with the best White painters in the Hudson River School.

June is Tiger Lily Time

As May turns into June, you can always be sure that the Tiger Lilies will begin to open along the road and creeks on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge. They only last a few weeks, and are gone for another year.

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Poinciana Time in Miami

Native to Southeast Asia, the Royal Poinciana Tree found its way to the Caribbean, and eventually to Southern Florida. Known also as the Flamboyant Tree, the Poinciana has a deep root system, making it perfect to survive hurricanes and drought. In winter, it loses its delicate leaves, allowing sunlight to filter down to grasses and shrubs below. and in May through August, the leaves return, and magnificent blossoms cover the entire canopy. The most common color is a brilliant red/orange, with white streaking on the inner petals, but less common are the orange/yellow flowers, and the rare yellow variety. The trunks and limbs are smooth, and the canopy can be up to seventy feet across.

A street in Coconut Grove, Miami
Peacocks moving freely in Coconut Grove
Urban sub-tropical jungle
Granada Golf Course, Coral Gables
Granada Golf Course, with Pink Shower, or Cassia Javanica Tree, also called an Apple Blossom Tree
The Golden Shower Tree blooms in late May and early June, and is often seen together with the Royal Poinciana
My acrylic on wood panel painting of the Royal Poinciana with St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church, Miami

A Garden of Pink Lady Slipper Orchids

The rarest wildflower I’ve ever found in the woods within a half mile of the house is a Pink Lady Slipper Orchid. Seven years ago, I came upon two plants in bloom about a quarter mile to the north, almost totally hidden by Mountain Laurel shrubs. The following year, I found one plant blooming in the same place, but since then, nothing there. Last May I was pleasantly surprised to discover six plants just thirty yards into the woods next to my carport. One bloomed, and I knew that this May, I might find more.

This morning I went into the woods as we returned from our walk, and there they were. I counted six orchids in bloom, seven in the process, and a number more just sprouting. As they say, “Good things come to those who wait…”.

Asheville’s Sunset Mountain

Asheville in mid April four years ago.

Living in The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina- A Blog

Above the iconic Grove Park Inn, a labyrinth of narrow drives and precipitous switchbacks hides a collection of mansions that would rival anything found in California or the Italian Riviera. Clinging to hillsides so steep that many are invisible as you traverse the storybook lanes, these dowagers also are surrounded by gardens of evergreens and blooming shrubs that have been nurtured for decades to appear as though Mother Nature did all the work.  Mid-April is traditionally the peak of Azalea and Dogwood season in the Mountains, and there’s no better place to observe this annual show than along these winding roads on Sunset Mountain.  Here are images made on April 18th, showing just a fraction of the overall beauty just waiting to be appreciated by the curious visitor.

Sunset Mountain Asheville Azaleas

Sunset Mountain Asheville Wysteria Dogwood and Wisteria

sunset mountain asheville castlesunset mountain asheville azaleas 5Sunset Mountain Asheville Iris 1Sunset Mountain Asheville Iris 2

Sunset Mountain Asheville azalea garden A Garden walkway with Japanese Maple

sunset mountain asheville azaleas vistasunset mountain asheville dogwood

This 50 second video gives a more three dimensional view…

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Clear Horizon at Montford Cove

Four years ago.. worth a revisit…

Living in The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina- A Blog

After four inches of rain on Sunday and Monday, a passing front cleared the air and lowered the humidity to winter levels. The clarity of the mountain views was remarkable for late April. Montford Cove is a farming community a mile north of my home. This is one of my favorite vantage points anywhere along the Blue Ridge Escarpment. This image was made looking to the southeast, with Tryon Mountain in the far distance along the North and South Carolina border. Charlotte would be just over the mountain on the left.

Montford Cove toward Tryon MountainLooking toward the southwest toward Lake Lure…montford cove toward Lake Lure

That’s Tryon and Bill’s Mountains on the horizon with Oak Mountain to the right. New Spring leaves give the canopy a rich glow of every shade of green. Visibility was unlimited.montford cove toward Tryon and Oak Mountains

This was a similar view just three weeks ago…montford cove view of Tryon Mountain

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Springtime Greening of my Mountains

Other than the colors of Fall, my favorite time in the mountains happens when all the deciduous trees are sprouting new leaves at the same time, painting the slopes and valleys every shade of green you could imagine. A trip around my neighborhood at noon today bares this out.

Ten minutes south of me is Apple Valley Golf Club, with views of Rumbling Bald and Shumont Mountains.

Five minutes south of me is a gravel road called Mountain Way, which leads to one of my favorite overlooks of 3,100 foot Hickory Nut Mountain.

View from my deck at noon…

By the end of April, there will only be one green, dark, blending in with the pines and spruces for the upcoming summer.

Historic Myers Park in Charlotte

After finishing their monumental design for the forest and gardens of Biltmore in Asheville, the Frederick Law Olmstead firm was commissioned to designed Charlotte’s first planned suburb, Dilworth, at the turn of the 20th century. With the success of Dilworth, a large farm just to the east was the next area to become a “Streetcar Suburb”, close to the center of Charlotte. Owned by the Myers family, the farm would be called “Myers Park”, and the first homes were constructed in 1911. Designed by Harvard trained landscape architect, John Nolen, Myers Park’s curvy avenues followed the contours of the hilly land, and featured parks, a country club and golf course, gates, and the expanded campus for Queen’s College, an all female liberal arts school. The design concepts Nolen executed in Myers Park forever changed the concept of suburban planning in Charlotte. Few suburbs in the United States have exhibited this level of planning. The neighborhood’s planning was so significant that it became a model for surrounding cities and saw the rise of many southern landscape artists, who went on to plan hundreds of neighborhoods across the south inspired by Myers Park.

Charlotte had become the leading textile manufacturing city in America, and the wealthy owners of these large corporations chose to build their mansions in Myers Park. Today, that original district is on the National Register of Historic Places, designated as a historic neighborhood in 1995. The architecture in the district is a mix of Colonial Revival, Bungalow, American Craftsmen, and English Tudor. Each property features professionally designed gardens, and there’s no better time to appreciate their incredible beauty than in Spring, when the Azaleas, Dogwood, and Japanese Maples are in full display.

The Duke Mansion 1916
The Duke Mansion Dogwoods

Pink Dogwood

This small cottage, a later addition to the district, was one of my favorites…

A Very Late Spring along The Escarpment

A Spring storm moved through over the weekend, bringing heavy rain and wind, but when the fog lifted and the Sun came out, the mountains of northern Rutherford and southern McDowell counties had barely begun to show any color except for the early greens of trees reluctantly pushing out their first leaves. The Bradford Pears had already come and gone, but the Dogwood were only showing buds, and the cherries and apples and most other trees that normally would have been in full bloom by this time, were still dormant. With very cold temps in early April, not even the Hummingbirds had arrived, the latest that has happened since I moved here twelve years ago. The Redbud bloom was late, and is still visible in the woods. Here is what I found as I toured within five miles of my valley.

3,100 foot Hickory Nut Mountain
Along Tight Run Road
Long Mountain in Montford Cove
Greasy Creek Farm under Oak Mountain
Sheep Grazing
Historic Log Cabin under Brushy Top Mountain
One early Bloomer
A Dogwood in Bud
Wolf Pen Mountain

This is a photo of Hickory Nut Mountain from three years ago, made in early April.

North Rutherford County Mountains

During the pandemic, cabin fever requires that I make short jaunts to places that inspire me near the house. One of my favorites is about five miles south, along a dirt road that hugs a ridge where I get an amazing view of the mountains that surround my valley, and the ridges in southern McDowell County just north of me. Only three houses are along this seldom used dead end gravel road, and I’ve never encountered another car on my visits there. Thanks to a clear cutting of the area just below the road in 2019, the views are limitless, and yesterday was especially clear, with winter forests still dominating the distant slopes.

Entering from the paved road, I was greeted by this Forsythia bush at the first home…

This panoramic view of the entire area always gives me goose bumps…

3,000 foot Hickory Nut Mountain to the northwest…

Pinnacle Peak to the northeast…

Cove Creek Valley to the northeast

Looking East
Loblolly Pine

Sometimes you just have to listen to the words of Robert Frost, and take the road less traveled. That can make all the difference…