Celebrating Black Visual Artists: Robert S. Duncanson

Robert S. Duncanson

Before Henry Ossawa Turner and Edmonia Lewis, there was Robert S. Duncanson, a great landscape painter who gained international acclaim, an avid supporter of the abolitionist movement, and the first African American artist to make the grand tour of Europe’s artistic treasures. Duncanson’s artwork is displayed throughout the United States and Europe. Even the Queen of England was a big fan and purchaser of his work.

Duncanson was born in 1821 in upstate New York to free people of color. The son of a housepainter and carpenter by trade, Duncanson adopted the family business and came to specialize in painting. But he yearned to use his talents with a brush for more expressive endeavors outside of trimming windows. He relocated to Cincinatti (an abolitionist center at the time) after having spent most of his youth in Canada and was moved to capture Ohio River Valley landscapes on canvas. The aspiring artist started off by copying prints of others but very quickly came into his own. By 1842, his paintings were on exhibition and he gained both the moral and financial support of art patrons and fellow black and white abolitionists alike.

Land of the Lotus Eaters, 1861

One of Duncanson’s most famous works, Land of the Lotus Eaters, 1861, was a great symbol of the abolitionist struggle as it depicted Black folks aiding Union soldiers (the Civil War had just begun right around its creation). Admittedly, I’m not one to go out and score a landscape painting to hang in my dining room but I appreciate Duncanson’s passion for his craft. It’s inspiring because he loved this land. He saw its beauty and he dared to believe that it belonged to all of us together, equally, in spite of slavery and racism and prejudice. That’s pretty darn visionary for 1861.

To learn more about Robert S. Duncanson and his art, click here.

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