Robert Duncanson had a hard time finishing, “Land of the Lotus Eaters.” It’s hard to focus when your country’s in a civil war, I suppose. He did finally wrap it up and in May, he even exhibited it. You know, it never dawned on me to think about exhibitions happening during the Civil War. I’m gonna go ahead and assume that most folks aren’t thinking about that either.
The exhibition took place in the Pike’s building. Now, this information comes from a big fat book called, “A History of African-American Artists,” but it doesn’t expand upon what the Pike building was or why an exhibition would have taken place there. So, after a little digging, I’m going to infer that the Pike building they’re referring to was actually, Pike’s Opera House. And the reason I believe it might have been exhibited here, is because it was a theater and the building was completed in 1859, just two years before “The Land of the Lotus Eaters,” was completed. It was an ideal place for new art to be seen by patrons of the arts. Plus, I didn’t find another building by that name. So…
The Cincinnati Weekly Gazette mentioned the exhibition on May 30, 1861, and mentioned that Duncanson’s painting looked a little like Frederick E. Church’s work titled, “Heart of the Andes,” which had been shown earlier in Cincinnati. Did Duncanson bite Church’s work? Mmmm… maybe… a little bit. I can kinda see it. Both works are incredibly beautiful though.
According to the Gazette, the exhibition was scheduled for eight days. Then Duncanson was supposed to exhibit “Land of the Lotus Eaters” and a painting titled, “Western Tornado,” in Canada and then take “Land of the Lotus Eaters” to London to be sold.
Keep in mind, right now, the civil war was happening, and if you thought that a big chunk of this episode would be focused on the civil war because of this time period, you would be wrong. Because we’re talking about Robert S. Duncanson. In 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, he moved to Montreal. He was obviously a lover, not a fighter. I mean, a lover of art, that is. Upon his arrival, he met the photographer, William A. Notman. Notman was a leading photographer in Canada, shooting portraits of prominent national, international and religious leaders. Notman was like J.P. Ball, the renown African American Cincinnati photographer, Duncanson worked with, beginning in 1851 – but on a much bigger scale. Public figures from all over Canada came to his studio and his work won prizes in Europe. Notman took photos of Natives, marketplaces and various social gatherings that gave his work a photojournalistic feel. Duncanson was immediately hired by Notman.
Also, it’s interesting to note, that one of the only known photographs of Duncanson, was taken by Notman. In the photo, you see him sitting in a chair sideways, leaning on a table, with his hat and a cane in one hand. He isn’t looking into the camera. It’s like he’s looking at the floor several feet in front of him, slightly to his right. His hair is parted on one side and his curly hair is slicked over his head in a comb-over. Whatever his hair color, you can tell it isn’t black. He wears an overcoat, and only the top button is fastened.
Outside of working for Notman, Duncanson continued painting local landscapes. In December 1863, Notman published his first volume of photographs, which was made up of forty-four photos of paintings plus two photographs of natural scenes. Of course, it included two of Duncanson’s works – “Land of the Lotus Eaters,” and a new work titled, “City Harbour of Montreal.”
He continued to paint and sell painted local scenes to influential Canadians, who, at the time, were attempting to develop an artistic and cultural life. And when the Art Association of Montreal (which was founded in 1860) opened an exhibition on February 11, 1864, Duncanson, again had the chance to exhibit his prized painting, “Land of the Lotus Eaters,” along with another painting titled, “Prairie Fire.”
Now, I did see a painting titled, “The Prairie Fire,” and that it is estimated to be created around 1850, but I couldn’t find a painting with this specific name, “Prairie Fire” attributed to Duncanson online. The painting I found was on Artsy.net and was from The Blanton Museum of Art. Curiously, there is no artist attributed to this painting… so… I don’t know whose painting this is. I’m not an art authenticator so I can’t say that it’s Duncanson’s.
The art scene was suddenly poppin’ in Canada and on February 27, 1865, The Art Association of Montreal opened another exhibition and this time Duncanson exhibited seven oil paintings and a watercolor among the works of artists like George Inness, J.F. Cropsey and Albert Bierstadt. I don’t have a full list of the eight works he exhibited, but one of them included a work titled, “The Vale of Cashmere.”
He stayed there for a while, in Montreal – and exhibited and taught there and in Toronto. At this point, you might have wondered where his wife has been in all of this. They’re both in Detroit. Duncanson lived in Cincinnati and his wife and youngest son lived in Detroit. I have no idea why.
Then, the summer he exhibited “The Vale of Cashmere,” in 1865, Duncanson finally landed in London – again! It’s assumed that the commissions and exhibitions he landed in Canada, along with the help of his new Canadian network and antislavery organizations in Scotland, helped make this London trip happen.
A History of African-American Artists from 1792 to the Present, Bearden and Henderson, 1993, Pantheon, pp. 19 – 39
Cleveland Art Museum: https://www.clevelandart.org/art/2014.12