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.

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