Art history is welcoming into its canon another American painter, the 19th century African-American artist Robert Seldon Duncanson (often erroneously and mysteriously called “Robert Scott Duncanson”). Duncanson was recently introduced into the collection of the National Gallery of Art with his stunning still life painting, Still Life with Fruit and Nuts. Although the National Gallery has some 400 works of art by African American painters, this is its first Duncanson work. Congratulations are in order — this is a beauty.
But first a bit about Robert Seldon Duncanson (1821-1872), left.
Born to mulatto parents, Duncanson was a self-taught artist whose still life paintings shown in the 1840s prompted one critic of the Detroit Free Press to comment,
“the paintings of fruit, etc. by Duncanson are beautiful, and as they deserve, have elicited universal admiration.”
Duncanson was then living in Cincinatti, a major abolitionist center considered to be the center of American art and culture west of the Appalachian Mountains, and painting portraits of prosperous Cincinattians and abolitionists. Art history experts believe that Duncanson saw a Cincinatti exhibition of Thomas Cole paintings, including his series The Voyage of Life (1842); whether Duncanson did or didn’t attend this art exhibition, the influence of Thomas Cole and the American painters of the Hudson River School was formidable. Duncanson subsequently shifted from still life paintings to landscape paintings.
Right: Robert Seldon Duncanson. Still Life with Fruit and Nuts, 1848. Oil on board, 12 x 16 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Ann and Mark Kington/The Kington Foundation and the Avalon Fund.
In 1850, Duncanson was commissioned by vintner Nicholas Longworth (1783-1863) to create eight landscape paintings in trompe l’oeil for his private Cincinatti residence, Belmont (now the home of Cincinatti’s Taft Museum of Art). Duncanson subsequently toured Europe, where he was exposed to Neoclassical works and 17th century landscape paintings by Claude Lorrain, among others. Duncanson incorporated these classical motifs into his landscape paintings. He spent the Civil War era in England and Scotland, tragically dying in 1872 from a breakdown that may have been fueled by exposure to lead-based paintings.
So back to Duncanson’s still life paintings, of which fewer than a dozen exist. Still Life with Fruit and Nuts is a diminutive 12″ by 16″ but packs a hefty punch. This classical composition is a study of textures, juxtapositing velvety smooth fruits with pockmarked nuts and wrinkled currants. The contrasts among these objects are brilliantly executed.
An excellent example of Duncanson’s mature work – when he had fully shifted to landscape paintings – is his Landscape with Rainbow. Claude Lorrain’s influence upon Duncanson (and countless other American painters) is seen in the hazy atmosphere and classical composition. Diagonals are carved by mountain slopes and rock outcroppings in this idyllic, bucolic scene that belies the oncoming Civil War.
Above right: Robert Seldon Duncanson. Landscape with Rainbow, 1859. Oil on canvas, 30 x 52 1/4 in. (76.3 x 132.7 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Leonard and Paula Granoff.
It’s curious to me that so many painters are forgotten in the history of art, only to be discovered centuries later. These “lost souls” include non-mainstream artists like African-American painters (think Henry Ossawa Tanner, Jacob Lawrence and Duncanson, for starters) and female artists (an exhaustively long list), but also famous painters like Caravaggio and Vermeer.