Robert S. Duncanson might be the most significant American landscape painter you never heard of. There is even some confusion about his name and the national origin of his father.
Referred to by critics in the early part of the 19th century as the “best landscape painter in the west”, Duncanson spent much of his career in the Ohio Valley. Though popular during his lifetime, demand for his work faded after his death, but has since regained critical and scholarly favor.
You will find references to to his mother as the descendent of slaves from Virginia — which is accurate — but characterizations of his father as “Scottish-Canadian” are apparently untrue, as is the middle name “Scott” that you will find in many listings (perhaps due to the same misunderstanding). According to Duncanson scholar Joseph D. Ketner II, his middle name was actually “Seldon”, and you will find both names assigned to him in various bios.
Duncanson was able to travel and exhibit in Europe, possibly sponsored initially by an abolitionist organization, and is considered the first African American painter to achieve international acclaim.
People were impressed then, as they are now, by the dramatic sweep and atmospheric range of his large scale landscapes. Though I’ve tried to include a few detail crops, most of the images of his paintings I’ve shown here don’t demonstrate the appeal of his work, and I suggest following the links provided — particularly to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Google Art Project — to see his work in high resolution and greater detail.
There is something about the visual texture, lighting effects and choice of subject in Duncanson’s work that give me a feeling almost of magic realism. Like his Hudson River School contemporaries, from whom he took inspiration, many of his compositions were invented, or referenced from various locations and assembled in an invented whole.
Such is the case of what is considered his masterpiece, a painting titled “Land of the Lotus Eaters“, that was inspired by a poem of Alfred Lord Tennyson (images above, bottom, with detail). Unfortunately, most images of this painting appear to me as though the green passages have been suppressed in reproduction, but I haven’t been able to find a more definitive version.