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Robert S. Duncanson, Landscape Artist

June 11th, 2021

By Mel Oles, Visitor Services and Programs Manager at Rose Hill Mansion and Johnston House

photograph of man with a mustache

Robert S. Duncanson

When many of us think of a Hudson River School artist we think of the founder, Thomas Cole, or his most famous student, Frederick Church.  The art movement, however, was more diverse than we might expect.  In recent years curators and art critics have brought to light other artists.  One of them is Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872).  Born in Fayette, New York, Duncanson painted landscapes during the Civil War period and is considered the first African American artist to be internationally known.  During his lifetime he was declared the best landscape painter in the West.  The Historical Society is joining museums, cities, and civic organizations from across the country in a year-long celebration (June 1, 2021-May 31, 2022) of Duncanson’s life and achievements.

Duncanson’s childhood in Fayette is not well documented and art historians have struggled to discover more information.  This is what we do know, Duncanson’s father and mother, Jean Dean and Lucy, moved to Fayette from Virginia along with his grandparents.  His father was a skilled carpenter and house painter.  Duncanson learned these skills from his father as a young child, which would help him develop into an artist.  When Duncanson was a boy the family moved to Monroe, Michigan.  He spent his teenage years there until he relocated to Cincinnati, Ohio and started his career as an artist (at the time Cincinnati had a thriving art community).  Though known for his landscapes, Duncanson also painted portraits and still-lifes.

Pastoral landscape of a young couple strolling through a pasture towards a house at the end of a rainbow

Landscape With Rainbow, 1859. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Art Museum

So why celebrate Duncanson for a year? Why does his story matter?  Duncanson was able to become a skilled artist during a time of unrest and discrimination.  We can look back into the past and realize how similar or different we are today.  Though artists like Duncanson helped shape the country’s early landscape tradition, his story is not often told.  As part of the inaugural events for President Joe Biden, Duncanson’s painting Landscape With Rainbow (1859) was on display at the United States Capital. The painting displays hope and optimism. It is a painting of the past that fits perfectly today.

Resources to learn more about Robert S. Duncanson –

Collection of Duncanson’s work at the Smithsonian Institute Museum of American Art –

“America’s Forgotten Landscape Painter: Robert S. Duncanson” (Smithsonian Magazine) –

Robert S. Duncan (Our Finger Lakes History With Walt Gable)

The Emergence of the African-American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson 1821-1872 by Joseph D Ketner

Robert S. Duncanson: The Spiritual Striving of the Freedman’s Sons

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