Saturday in the Museum with Robert

Image: Robert Seldon Duncanson, “Still Life with Fruits and Nuts” (1848). Oil on board.

For the last few weeks our Saturday posts about art have focused on still life paintings.  The golden age for the style was in the Netherlands during the 17th century.  The tradition, however lasts to this day and can be found in many other places.  In poking around the internet we found this painting by an American painter name Robert Seldon Duncanson.  Instead of waiting for the chronology of our posts to get to 19th century America, we are jumping ahead because Duncanson was an African-American painter and it seemed appropriate to post it during Black History Month.

Here is some background on Duncanson from the Smithsonian:

“Robert Scott Duncanson was perhaps the most accomplished African-American painter in the United States from 1850 to 1860. He was born in Seneca County, New York, in 1821 to an African-American mother and Scottish-Canadian father, who sent his son to Canadian schools during his youth.”

Duncanson’s career centered in Cincinnati and the focus was landscape painting.  In that genre he was hailed as the “best landscape painter in the West” and the equal of other notable painters like Thomas Cole, Asher Brown Durand, and John Frederick Kensett.

“It is not known when or where Duncanson received his early artistic training, but by 1842 he had begun exhibiting in Cincinnati. In 1853 Duncanson made his first European trip, which was apparently financed by an abolitionist organization from Ohio. He visited England, France, and Italy, and may have traveled to Germany. In England, Duncanson was especially attracted to the landscapes of Claude Lorrain and J. M. W. Turner. Duncanson’s trip to Europe probably did not last longer than a year as he returned to Cincinnati in 1854 and became the proprietor of a photography studio. But by the following year he had switched from photography to painting full time.”

Duncanson traveled extensively, including for an extended period in the 1860s, possibly to put some distance between himself and the Civil War. The cause of his death is not clear.  Lynda Roscoe Hartigan writing in the the Smithsonian reference says,  “Tragically, mental illness ended the artist’s career and life, a circumstance perhaps attributable as much to long-term lead poisoning as to the social and personal pressures of his interracial heritage. Ultimately, however, the psychological difficulties that he suffered do not diminish his ambitions and accomplishments as a photographer, muralist, and painter.”

The still life pictured above was acquired by the National Gallery of Art in 2012. The NGA site has little to say about the painting except, “[Duncanson’] achievement as a still-life painter has only recently become apparent. The exceptional quality of Still Life with Fruit and Nuts suggests that much remains to be learned about this little-known aspect of his career.”

At the time, the Times reported:

“Measuring just 12 by 16 inches, the painting features an immaculately composed pile including a pear, an apple, grapes, walnuts, hazelnuts and peanuts on a table.

“It was auctioned in 2000 at what was then Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg (now Phillips de Pury & Company), selling for $222,500. The buyer was the Babcock Galleries in New York, which sold it to an unidentified private collector. That collector took it back to Babcock to sell for an undisclosed price. John Driscoll, the Babcock’s owner, offered it to the National Gallery.

“Franklin Kelly, the National Gallery’s deputy director, said he did not remember seeing the still life when Phillips had it for sale.

“We’ve been looking for a painting by Robert Seldon Duncanson for a long time,” Mr. Kelly said, explaining that although the artist is better known for his landscapes, the gallery sought a still life for two reasons: It would be a particularly fitting addition to an already world-class collection of American still lifes by masters including Raphaelle Peale, Martin Johnson Heade, John Frederick Peto and Michael William Harnett. And Duncanson’s landscapes are already well represented in the nearby Smithsonian American Art Museum as well.

“The painting was hung this week in the American galleries of the National Gallery’s West Building.”

There is something frustrating and fascinating that knowledge of the painting and Duncancson seems inferential and circling, rather than established and defined.  Yet there is something rewarding in discovering such a startling painting.


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