Category Archives: Duncanson

Robert S. Duncanson:”Blue Hole, Little Miami River”

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


Robert S. Duncanson (1817-1872)

Auction of Edmonia Lewis’s MINNEHAHA

COWAN’S AUCTION: 2009, Winter Fine and Decorative Art, February 7

Sale Price Including Buyer’s Premium: $52,875.00


Marble bust atop marble base, standing 11 5/8″ tall. With Minnehaha inscribed between figure and base, and Edmonia Lewis/ Fecit A Roma/ 1868 on reverse side. 

Born near Albany, New York, (Mary) Edmonia Lewis (ca. 1842 – after 1909) was the daughter of an Ojibway mother and a black, West Indian, father. Following studies at New York Central College in McGrawville, and at Oberlin College, she arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, in early 1863. There, under the patronage of abolitionists Lydia Maria Child, William Cooper Nell, and William Lloyd Garrison among others, she studied with the sculptor Edward Brackett.

Lewis rented space in the Studio Building in downtown Boston and quickly established herself as an artist on the rise, specializing in plaster and marble portrait busts and medallions. Her reputation was enhanced by the success of her bust of the fallen Brahmin Civil War hero, Robert Gould Shaw. With funds from the sale of copies of that work and of other pieces she sailed for Europe in the summer of 1865. Following a stay in Florence, Lewis settled in Rome where she lived for the rest of her professional life, making frequent trips to the United States to exhibit and sell her work and to garner new commissions.

Lewis’s Roman studio was listed along with those of other major artists of the day in all of the best guidebooks. Her career was followed closely by the American and European press, and she quickly became the first non-white American to gain an international reputation as a sculptor. Along with portrait busts of friends and public figures, her more ambitious early work referenced her dual heritage with themes of black emancipation and of Native American life and lore. In the latter instance she produced a body of work based upon Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha (1855), the single best-selling poem in the English language of the entire 19th-century. Savvy collectors and curious tourists alike flocked to Lewis’s studio to purchase this work with its added cachet of coming from the hand of an artist who was herself part Indian.

It was not uncommon for sculptors of successful larger works to excerpt a detail of such pieces in the form of a bust sold independently; most notably, Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave was offered in both versions. Given her friendship with Powers, Lewis would have recognized the wisdom of that practice. Her elaborate group, The Old Arrowmaker and His Daughter (also known as The Wooing of Hiawatha), and the standing couple in her Marriage of Hiawatha, provided the models for her busts of Minnehaha and Hiawatha with the subject’s name inscribed on the lower front atop the base. To date there are five known signed and dated copies of Lewis’s Minnehaha bust housed in public and private collections. This previously unknown example adds another to that number.

The mythic love story of Hiawatha and Minnehaha was well known. Still, in depicting the Indian maiden, Lewis walked a cautious line between creating a chaste child of the forest and perpetuating stereotypes of morally naïve savages. While Minnehaha wears an animal pelt, unlike the conventional depictions of such clothing at that period – – often draped over one shoulder with an exposed breast emphasizing a partially clothed life in the wild, hers is fashioned into a modest garment accented with graduated beads at her neck.

Lewis’s characteristic interest in the play of pattern and texture is evident in the pelt bodice framed on one side by the smooth flesh of a bare shoulder, and on the other by the weight and folds of the fabric of the blanket draped across the opposite shoulder. The beads suggest worked stone or bone; the headband is likely a strip of leather. They pose a contrast to the softness of the billowing flow of wavy hair and to the lightness of the elegant sweep and fall of the crowning feather. This is a small work with a considerable aesthetic and narrative burden. Within her persona, Lewis’sMinnehaha is designed to evoke the ambience of an untamed wilderness, the innocence of first love, and the nobility of a tragic figure caught in the inevitability of a sealed fate.

For most of the latter part of the 19th century these small marbles by Edmonia Lewis were highly prized; one example of her bust of Minnehaha was displayed at the National Academy of Design as early as 1868. Beginning in the 1990s they have begun to return to an increasingly avid market.

mr-feb09wr  We would like to thank Edmonia Lewis scholar Marilyn    Richardson for the catalogue essay. She is the Principal of  Art  + History Consultants, a  research and design group in  Watertown, MA. The technical description  and condition  report were provided by Cowan’s Auctions. 

Condition: The bust was once painted white, and this residue can still be seen in areas. It has mostly worn to again expose the marble as it would have been after execution. The paint was applied several decades ago. Two natural veins in the marble extend both across the face and the neck/chest, each visible on the reverse side. A small loss is apparent above the Fecit A Romainscription on verso.

(EST $20000-$30000)

and in the same sale: