Robert S. Duncanson – Part I

Land of the Lotus Eaters, 1861

In doing the research for Duncanson, I had so much juicy information, that instead of trying to cram it all into one episode, I decided to really dig in and give you as much as I could, without going down a rabbit hole. So, unlike the other artists on this podcast, I’ve broken Duncanson’s story into three parts. In this one, of course, I’d like to cover his earliest years – Please note, though, that I won’t go too early because there’s not a lot of information on his childhood.

In the second part, I’d like to cover Duncanson’s life and work leading up to the Civil War and in the final part, I’ll wrap it up with his journey’s end. The end, at least on this plane. Also, because I’ve read different things about Duncanson’s life, accounts are written in a way that may, on the surface conflict with mine, I need to say upfront, that a lot of my source material comes from the 1993 book titled, “A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the present,” by the fine artist Romare Bearden and journalist, Harry Henderson. Because I actually know who the authors of this book are as well as their methods of research, I’m tend to trust their information.

Okay, so, Robert Scott Duncanson was born in 1823, in Seneca County, in New York. His mother was a Black woman from Cincinnati who most likely ran off to Canada, because, why not? Being a free Black woman in the 1800s was still hard. Keep in mind, Robert Duncanson was born almost 40 years before the Civil War, so, though Ohio was a free state, it was right at the edge of slaveholding states. The existence of slavery was felt everywhere, not just in slaveholding states. And when I say it was “felt” – I probably don’t have to explain this, but – I’m saying African Americans felt this. Even the free ones.

Duncanson’s father was a Canadian of Scottish decent. Not much is known about him. What is known, is that at some point his mother and father separated. And I know this is not a big part of the telling of Duncanson’s story, but I did wish I knew why. It’s kind of like when celebrities break up… sometimes you want to know why… Anyway… His mother left her son in the care of his father. At what age? We don’t know. But his mother went back to Cincinnati to be with her family.

Now, growing up in Canada meant that Duncanson was educated through the Canadian public school system, which was said to be top notch at the time, especially when you compare it to the education Black school children were receiving (and weren’t allowed to receive) in the U.S. There’s absolutely no comparison!  So, with this excellent education he developed this passion for literature – English literature in particular. This love of literature would be the source of inspiration for many of Duncanson’s future works.

In 1841, so when he was around eighteen, Duncanson packed up and left Canada to go live with his mom in Cincinnati. Not really sure what happened there – whether his father passed away or if he just missed his mom, or was seeking some type of opportunity his mom had told him about in Ohio, but he did join her. Now, they must have been pretty close since, a Black man leaving Canada to come and live in a state at the dangerous edge of slavery is kind of unheard of.  Then again, he did grow up in Canada. And he was very young. His perspective is going to be a little… different.

It might’ve been Cincinnati’s art scene that took him out there. He most likely was aware of his own artistic talents before he left. And Cincinnati had about a hundred artists in the city, and they’d had art schools there since the 1800s. Still, Cincinnati, though a free state was influenced heavily by slaveholders. “They considered it a southern town on free soil.” However, it was a station on the Underground Railroad.

Just to remind you, the Underground Railroad was a secret network of individuals and safehouses to assist other people escaping slavery.

So, let’s talk a little about Cincinnati. At the time, the city’s leaders wanted Cincinnati to be this great cultured community. I read that they were calling themselves “The Queen City of the West.” So, I’m not sure if anyone else was calling them that… also, I don’t know who “The Queen City of the East” is either… But city leaders, including Nicholas Longworth, who made his money through law, banking, real estate and wine, wanted to compete with the sophistication of eastern cities so they pushed for the city to build like crazy – colleges; an opera house; law and medical schools; observatories and other scientific institutions.

Cincinnati was interesting because several cultural influences were melting into the city. There were the East Coast business men; there were European immigrants looking to create a new life; there were Western hunters and Rivermen.

By the way, I looked up what Rivermen were, because I wanted to find out if we should be calling them “river people.” I’d never heard of rivermen before, but the word sounded self-explanatory, but… you never know. So, when I did my initial research, the first thing I came across was the professional hockey team, the Peoria Rivermen.  I saw their logo and was pretty certain of what I’d find. Digging slightly deeper, I confirmed that Rivermen were pretty much what they sounded like – people who worked on or along the river. Because of the time period, I can safely assume that these were mostly men working on the river but I can’t speak on any women who joined them… so… rivermen.

In Cincinnati, there were also both free Black citizens and White Southerners. There were planters. There were those who stole themselves and ran from slave owners and there were slave hunters.

There were about 3,000 Black people in Cincinnati by the time Duncanson arrived and the majority of them were former slaves.  Which was a huge concentration of free Black folks – among the largest in the U.S. at the time. Not only were they free, but were rather industrious as well, owning their own stuff. Their own property, their own stores, schools, churches, hotels and places to cut loose and entertain themselves.

There were leaders like John I Gains, an abolitionist and advocate for African American education. There was Robert J. Harlan, an entrepreneur, civil rights activist and politician. There was Peter H. Clark, an abolitionist, writer, publisher and orator. These men along with other Black leaders were highly respected and were instrumental in hiding fugitive slaves that crossed the Ohio River into freedom every night.

Like Duncanson, many Cincinnati artists were self-taught. What was popular then, were to paint portraits and panoramas. Panoramas were these huge panels of canvas, like eight feet high and they were rolled up on a giant vertical spool and slowly unreeled on a stage to reveal these epic scenes while a narrator described the scenery to a captive audience. The scenes were images of specific sights, like Niagara Falls or what could typically be seen on a trip down the Mississippi River. There were panoramas that even retold stories from the Bible and American history. Some depicted slave life. This was both educational and entertaining and the public ate it up! Loved it!

Outside of portraiture and panoramas, there were also a group of Cincinnati artists who gravitated to the beauty of the wilderness and turned to landscape painting with its transcendence of man’s daily grind and the wastefulness of civilization, to the deep spiritual connection to the wild. “God’s work.” So, landscape artists were also pulled into the panorama scene to create many of the epic landscapes to tell these stories.

In this city, Black artists were allowed to participate in the local art scene – somewhat – and gain recognition to their contributions to The Hudson River School of landscape painting. To be clear, The Hudson River School was not an actual school, just like the Underground Railroad was not an actual Railroad. Don’t let Colson Whitehead’s book fool you (although it’s really good! You should totally read it if you haven’t already – it’s called “The Underground Railroad” – I haven’t seen the movie so I can’t speak on that – but the book – amazing!).

So, no. The Hudson River School was an American art movement practiced by a group of landscape painters that explored three elements discovery, exploration and settlement – but approached in a dreamlike –romanticized way. The name comes from the fact that these paintings were usually of the Hudson River Valley and surrounding areas.

Remember, I said Black artists could participate – somewhat. They could… but… it was hard. I want you to imagine this city with its combination of abolitionists and free Black people and Southern plantation workers that controlled the city’s finances. Are you thinking about it?  There were three riots incited by Southern plantation owners in Cincinnati against the city’s Black citizens and abolitionists. In 1823, in 1836 and in 1841. The year Duncanson arrived.

Duncanson came in the spring of 1841 and joined his mother in her cottage on Hamilton Avenue in the village of Mount Pleasant (later renamed Mount Healthy because of the survival rate of its fortunate residents after the 1850 cholera epidemic – the village later became a city in 1951).

Then Duncanson, met a girl that caught his eye – or he caught hers, I don’t know which – and then got hitched! According to some sources his new bride had escaped slavery. They had a son named Reuben. At some point, poor Reuben dies, and it’s not clear from what or at what age, but he does make it to at least 18 because his dad helps him find a job as a clerk.

Back to his arrival. Duncanson is different. He’s a different kind of Black man. He was educated in Canadian public schools and didn’t suffer the constant harassment most African Americans did as children. He didn’t have the apprehension and inhibitions most African Americans did. He was sociable with everyone! He was good-humored. He was modest, but ambitious. And he had no qualms about declaring his intention of becoming a professional artist. That was crazy! No African Americans did that!

Then, in September 1841… remember that last riot I told you about? Yeah. That happened.

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