Thursday, January 21, 2021

First Lady's Choice


Robert Seldon Duncanson (1821-1872), Landscape with Rainbow, 1859, 30 x 52.25", oil on canvas

I didn't catch this pastoral landscape on WSJ Live on Inauguration Day, but perhaps some of you watching on television did.  It had been selected by Jill Biden from the Smithsonian Collection to be on prominent display in the U.S. Capital during the inauguration.

The artist, Robert Seldon Duncanson, was one of very few established African-American artists active during the pre-and post-Civil War era.  'Established' meaning he was able to support himself by his art, even to travel to and receive art training in Paris.  These accomplishments are never easy for any artist; Duncanson was extremely gifted but he also worked tirelessly first as a house painter, then as an itinerant portrait painter particularly around Cincinnati and Detroit.  There was little formal art education for most Americans at the time and virutally none for African-American artists, so he taught himself to paint by copying prints and etchings of European artists and sketching from nature as he traveled seeking portrait commissions.  

He also became intrigued by travel prints, exploration journals and how Hudson River School artists whose works he encountered used nature to convey ideas about America and its ideals. With the goal of becoming a landscape artist himself, he came off the road, away from portraits and settled in Cincinnati, which had a large free slave population as well as a strong arts community.  There, in what was then called 'the Athens of the West' and filled with new inspiration, he received an important commission from Charles Avery, an abolitionist Methodist minister.  His work for Avery, combined with Avery's social reach,  cemented Duncanson's career by establishing him within a network of abolitionist patrons who purchased his art, sponsored his trips to study old masters abroad and sustained most of Duncanson's career.

Sadly, that career was shortened by dementia and early death at 51.  It is thought Duncanson's suffering, like perhaps Michaelangelo, Goya, Van Gogh among others, was caused by lead in the paints.  Even by then though he was one of the very few landscape painters of the nineteenth century and achieved levels of success unknown to his contemporaries.  By the 1860's American art critics were proclaiming  Duncanson the "greatest landscape painter in the West" while London newspapers held him in equal regard to other British artists at the time.  He is credited with developing the regional Ohio River Valley art style and to this day the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati maintains an artist-in-residence program for African-American artists in honor of Duncanson.

So, the First Lady chose very well indeed.  

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