Maxine E. Davis
Robert S. Duncanson, a mulatto of Scots-Canadian decent, was born in New York State. He was educated in Canada. During his early years in Cincinnati, he encountered the usual difficulties of young artists. However, he had the good fortune to be sent to Edinburgh, Scotland, to study at the expense of the Anti-Slavery League. There, according to author Cedric Dover, paternal tradition led him to become “immoderately drunk on Tennyson and Scott.” As a result, his painting, “The Lotus Eaters,” was born. The picture was based on Tennyson’s poem by the same name. He received great acclaim from British art critics, though attempts to locate it have failed.
His first trip to Europe was followed by several others, including study of “classical tradition” in Italy. Throughout Duncanson’s trips to Europe, however, he remained an American artist, both in his work and his attitudes. Although he returned several times to Europe, he always returned to America, where he died.
Duncanson received several commissions to paint the portraits of prominent people during his residence in this country. William Freeman Cary, Bishop Payne, and the Berthelets to name a few. He also painted a full length portrait of Nicholas Longworth, who commissioned him to execute a series of murals for the hall and reception room at Belmont, the Longworth mansion (now the Taft Museum) in Cincinnati, Ohio.
A series of sentimental pictures accented Duncanson’s career as a landscape painter. One of his landscape paintings is—Blue Hole, Flood Waters, Little Miami River, a painting reminiscent of landscapes of the Hudson River School (1851). Though the charm of this picture was never repeated, he did produce several lovely landscapes in the same romantic mood. Other paintings were Ellen’s Isle, Loch Katrine, Vale of Kashmir, and Romantic Landscape.
Critics disagree in judging both Duncanson’s artistic ability and his character as a person. However, there is little doubt that Duncanson’s career is a milestone in the history of African-American art. He was the first African-American artist to receive widespread recognition both in this country and abroad.