Blue Hole, Little Miami River, Robert S. Duncanson

By Braunlin-Jones, Heather | School Arts, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Blue Hole, Little Miami River, Robert S. Duncanson


Braunlin-Jones, Heather, School Arts


About the Artist

Robert S. Duncanson was born in Fayette, New York, around 1821, the son of free African American parents. His paternal grandfather was the illegitimate son of a Virginia slave owner who had been given freedom as a young man. The Duncanson family later settled in Monroe, Michigan, and became skilled in house painting, decorating, and carpentry. It was in these trades that Duncanson began to work during the late 1830s. Desiring to become an artist, he left Michigan around 1840 for Cincinnati, which was, at that time, the economic and cultural center of the United States west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Upon his arrival, Duncanson settled in Mount Healthy, a neighborhood northwest of the city known for its abolitionist sympathies and home to a tightly knit group of African Americans. Although he was aware of the struggles he would face as an African American working in a city so close to the South, he soon received several commissions from Cincinnati citizens.

Among those Cincinnatians who were interested in Duncanson was Nicholas Longworth (1783-1863), the city's greatest patron of the arts. Long-worth commissioned Duncanson to create a series of landscape murals for Belmont, his home (now the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati). He also financed Duncanson's trip to Europe to further Duncanson's artistic studies. In 1853 Duncanson became the first African American artist to make the Grand Tour of Europe, stopping in London, Paris, and Florence. While on this excursion, his interest in painting landscapes increased.

After returning to Cincinnati, Duncanson continued to paint landscapes in addition to portraits of local abolitionists, including Longworth. His style of landscape painting was influenced by the Hudson River School painters, which included such artists as Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and Asher B. Durand (1796-1886), whose works Duncanson would have seen during a number of Cincinnati exhibitions. The Hudson River School viewed America's untamed land as the Garden of Eden and saw the country's natural wilderness as a source of national pride. Duncanson was also influenced by a group of Cincinnati painters, including Worthington Whittredge (1820-1910) and William L. Sonntag (1822-1900]. The three artists would often venture on excursions throughout the Ohio River Valley, looking for views and scenes for their paintings.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Duncanson traveled through the northern United States and Canada to escape the turmoil of the fighting. Duncanson ventured on a second expedition to Europe in the summer of 1865, when he traveled to Scotland. While there, he received international acclaim from the British press for his works of art.

By the late 1860s Duncanson was struggling with mental illness, believing the spirit of a master artist possessed him. His delusions may have been brought on by his continuous exposure to lead-based paint, first as a housepainter and later as an artist. This exposure eventually led to the poisoning of his mind and body. Having spent his last years in Michigan, Duncanson died in a Detroit sanatorium on December 21, 1872.

A Fascinating Landscape

The geography of Cincinnati and the surrounding region, with its lush river valleys and woodlands, attracted many landscape painters to southwestern Ohio. Duncanson and other artists would often wander throughout the area searching for locales as inspiration for their work. Since the 1830s, one popular spot for artists to paint near Cincinnati was a pool of water on the Little Miami River, a tributary of the Ohio River, known as Blue Hole. This picturesque area is now in John Bryan State Park, near Yellow Springs, Ohio, about seventy miles from Cincinnati. This is the setting for Duncanson's Blue Hole, Little Miami River of 1851.

In this landscape, Duncanson has depicted the powerful and awe-inspiring effects of nature. There is an abundance of trees in the forest, and Duncanson has created their foliage using a palette of cool colors, including silvery blues and greens. …

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