Reflections on the American Landscape
By John Wilmerding
During the Jacksonian era of the 1820s and 1830s, narrative scenes of everyday life were in the ascendancy in the U.S., reflecting the rise of the democratic spirit and the cult of the individual. A continuation of that sensibility remains evident in the three fishing figures in Robert S. Duncanson’s painting “Blue Hole, Little Miami River” (1851). But by midcentury, landscape had moved to the forefront of artistic attention in America, and it dominates this pastoral vista. The silhouetted boys in the foreground serve to give scale to the composition and a sense of nature’s expansive presence around them. They also convey an aura of human harmony with the landscape and the domestication of the wilderness on what was then America’s western frontier. The Little Miami River is a tributary of the Ohio River east of Cincinnati, and Duncanson had settled in the river city a decade earlier. (Appropriately, this picture now resides in the Cincinnati Art Museum.) By this time it had become a thriving center of east-west settlement and north-south commerce.
Duncanson (1821-1872) was born in New York state to a free black mother and a Scots-Canadian father and was described as a “freeman of color.” Along with Frederick Douglass, who wrote his first autobiography in 1845 and a second in 1855, Duncanson represents the newly emerging voice of the African-American around the mid-19th century. As a young man he moved west, securing employment as a house painter and largely teaching himself the rudiments of artistic practice. In 1848 he gained a commission from Nicholas Longworth, a prominent Cincinnati lawyer and patron, to paint murals for his mansion Belmont (now the Taft Museum), and in the years following learned the conventions of contemporary landscape painting.
It is clear the work of such established artists as Worthington Whittredge and William Louis Sonntag shaped Duncanson’s maturing career. He also could have seen examples by other Hudson River School figures on view at local Art Union exhibitions. In particular, he admired the landscapes of Thomas Cole, recently deceased and celebrated as the most influential artist of the day. With “Blue Hole,” Duncanson demonstrated a new level of mastery in absorbing Cole’s framework for composing landscape subjects.
Cole was acknowledged as the founder of America’s first landscape movement, and articulated his views in his 1835 “Essay on American Scenery.” Nature was to be seen as educational and inspirational. The principal virtue of the national landscape, distinct from Europe’s, was wilderness. Cole addressed the several components of landscape: mountains, lakes, waterfalls, rivers, forests and sky. But he was most eloquent regarding the visual power of water: “Like the eye in the human countenance, it is the most expressive feature.” Reflection in particular served as both mirror and meditation. It was, said Cole, “the voice of the landscape.”
Duncanson makes this the central element of his painting. Its horizontal foreground provides a solid base for the composition. In the background he balances the two banks of trees. We view a tranquil turn in the river, which appears to have been dammed up by beavers—the piles of logs visible at the left and in the center distance. The whole coheres in physical and spiritual harmony.
Duncanson’s canvas was his most beautiful work to date and a quintessential example of mid-19th-century American landscape art, capturing something of the country’s self-confidence and optimism at the outset of a decade that would steadily move toward tension and conflict. But in 1851 he created an image not yet darkened by the turbulent interlocking forces of nation, race and territory.
We can find exact parallels of thought in the writings of Henry David Thoreau, both in his “Journal” of that same year and in final drafts of “Walden” published in 1854. First, there is the shared love of describing nature’s details, but even more the philosophical expressiveness of water. On Sept. 1, 1851, Thoreau recorded, “What unanimity between water & the sky—one only a little denser element than the other.” And in the second chapter of “Walden” he observed, “It is well to have some water in your neighborhood, to give buoyancy to and float the earth.” In a different metaphor he referred to his pond as “an amphitheatre for some sylvan spectacle.”
But it was the perfect geometry of the circle that Thoreau repeated most of all, in his references to the orbs of sun and moon, the cycle of the seasons and the revolution of the Earth, a circling hawk overhead, and, in his Conclusion, the assertion that “our voyaging is only great-circle sailing.” But Walden Pond was also like an iris in its changing colors, and in the chapter titled “The Ponds” he declared, “A lake is the landscape’s most agreeable and expressive feature: it is the earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”
Duncanson’s circular pool evokes both the visual language of Cole and literary equivalents in Thoreau. Its tranquil surface mirrors the rocks and forest at each side and in the center the great wedge of luminous sky, holding in balance man and nature as well as the worlds of fact and spirit. This and the works that followed led the Daily Cincinnati Gazette of May 30, 1861, to declare Duncanson the “best landscape painter in the west.”
The cultural historian David Lubin has observed that Duncanson included passages of water, whether rivers or broad lakes, in almost all his paintings, and argued that for the African-American sensibility these have social and political meaning. With figures often standing at their banks, they were waterways to be crossed, both visually and physically, to metaphorical and literal freedom. Indeed, Duncanson himself left for Canada in 1863, during the Civil War. But we may argue that his first masterpiece a decade earlier was less a coded racial landscape than an inspired American one.
—Mr. Wilmerding is the author of numerous books on 19th-century American art and culture. He teaches in the American Studies Program at Princeton