A rare painting by Robert S. Duncanson, an African American artist identified by antebellum critics as the “best landscape painter in the West,” is now part of the Winterthur collection.
A special study day, Discovering Duncanson, will be held on December 6, 2019, featuring prominent scholars Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Martha Jones, Ph.D., John Hopkins University.
Landscape in the Smoky Mountains, Tennessee, was painted by Duncanson circa 1851–53. The picture shows a panoramic view with a stream, pasture, and mountains inspired by the southern Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee. It is an outstanding composition in pristine condition for its age and equals or surpasses many examples of the mid-19th century American school of landscape painting. This canvas constitutes a crucial addition to the Winterthur collection, which had not included a painting representative of this major movement in American culture. Duncanson’s painting also contributes to Winterthur’s growing collection of needlework, furniture, and other works of art and material culture created by African Americans, thus constructing a more inclusive view of artistic creation in 19th-century America at Winterthur. The painting will be on view in the galleries in early December.
A man with an interesting road to artistic prominence, Robert Seldon Duncanson was born in 1821 in Fayette, New York, the grandson of Charles Duncanson (ca. 1745–1828), a freed enslaved man from Virginia. The family had moved into the Military Tract of Central New York, where the federal government granted land to Revolutionary War veterans, suggesting that Charles may have earned his freedom for his military service. Duncanson’s family later moved to Monroe, Michigan, a thriving commercial town at the western end of Lake Erie. After apprenticing in the family trade of house painting, decorating, and carpentry, he formed his own firm of painters and glaziers in Monroe in 1838 in association with a man named John Gamblin. The firm stopped advertising in 1839 probably because Duncanson had decided to move to Cincinnati.
A city at the crossroad of major East and West transportation routes and on the border between the North and the South, Cincinnati was then becoming a leading economic and cultural center west of the Appalachian Mountains. The bourgeoning city would produce some of the most important artistic and cultural figures of the time, including Hiram Powers, Lilly Martin Spencer, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In spite of Ohio’s Black Laws, pervasive racial discrimination, and racial violence, it was a stronghold of abolitionism and became home to a short-lived but thriving African American community attracted by the opportunities it offered. Within this community, a small middle class emerged. It established churches, schools, and benevolent societies and it included an active group of African American artists. Duncanson’s career is an integral part of the city and its community’s history.
Between 1850 and 1852, Duncanson undertook several sketching trips, traveling up the Ohio River through Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan, and south to Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, where he travelled at least to Asheville. One of the earliest known landscapes from this period, A View of Asheville, North Carolina (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), is signed and dated from the year 1850. The following year, Duncanson exhibited another southern composition, The French Broad, North Carolina, at the Western Art-Union gallery, where the work was praised as one of Duncanson’s best pictures. Landscape in the Smoky Mountains, Tennessee, was painted exactly during this period; the canvas stamp on its back was used by the manufacturer only between 1850 and 1853. The painting in its outstanding condition offers a direct encounter with the rising talent of this extraordinary artist.
Register here for a special study day, Discovering Duncanson, on December 6, 2019, with prominent scholars to explore and examine this important and rare artist and his art work.
About the Speakers
Professor Martha S. Jones is the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. She is a legal and cultural historian whose work examines how black Americans have shaped the story of American democracy. Professor Jones holds a doctorate in history from Columbia University and a juris doctor degree from the CUNY School of Law. Prior to the start of her academic career, she was a public interest litigator in New York City. Professor Jones is the author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (Cambridge University Press in 2018) and All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture 1830-1900 (University of North Carolina Press, 2007) and a coeditor of Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women (University of North Carolina Press, 2015). Professor Jones is recognized as a public historian who writes frequently for broader audiences at outlets including The Washington Post, The Atlantic, USA Today, Public Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Time. She has also curated museum exhibitions including Reframing the Color Line and Proclaiming Emancipation in conjunction with the William L. Clements Library, and collaborations with the Smithsonian’s and collaborations with the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the Charles Wright Museum of African American History, the Southern Poverty Law Center, PBS, Netflix, and Arte (France). Professor Jones currently serves as a president of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, and on the Organization of American Historians Executive Board.
Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw is an Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies race, gender, sexuality, and class in the art of the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean. She received her doctorate in art history from Stanford University, then held an appointment as an assistant professor of art history and African and African American Studies at Harvard University for five years before joining to the University of Pennsylvania in 2005. She has been a fellow at the National Portrait Gallery. Her recent publications include “Andrew Wyeth’s Black Paintings,” in Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect, published by Yale University Press; “Family and Fortune in Early African American Life and Representation,” in the exhibition catalog, Artist and Visionary: William Matthew Prior Revealed, from the Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York; and “Creating a New Negro Art in America,” in Transition 108, published by the W. E. B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research and University of Indiana Press. Among other exhibitions she has helped to organize, she co-curated the exhibition Represent: 200 Years of African American Art, which highlighted selections from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exceptional holdings of African American art.