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Robert S. Duncanson: Painting and the Antebellum Midwest

Published on
November 3

The election day weekend is here, and with it—as undergraduates will hardly need reminding—Columbia’s fall break. If you’re looking for an art fix this fall break and hanging around campus, Schermerhorn’s own Wallach Gallery is exhibiting the spectacular landscapes of Robert S. Duncanson, a black antebellum artist.

Born a “free person of color” in upstate New York in 1821, Duncanson moved in the 1840’s  to Cincinnati, then known as the Athens of the West, where he both flourished as a photographer and landscape artist and became active in abolitionist circles in the decades leading up to the civil war. The Wallach has given equal weight to Duncanson’s artistic and political lives, pairing its impressive selection of landscapes and murals alongside historical texts, images, and music documenting the period and its political upheavals. While Duncanson’s bucolic paintings are superficially free of explicit political reference, the biographical details that the Wallach brings to light—including Duncanson’s involvement in fellow abolitionist’s JP Ball’s 600-yard-long anti-slavery panorama—encourage careful review of the landscapes’ nuances.

Not that you need much history to appreciate Duncanson’s skill. Recalling paintings of the Hudson River School, a source of inspiration for Duncanson, the landscapes render stunning vistas of the American middle west with breathtaking detail and compositional strength. The selections capture Duncanson’s eye for texture as much as for tint: notice, for instance, the vague bright trees reflected in Ohio River Scene’s mirror-still water. The Wallach has also dedicated a room to facsimiles of Duncanson’s well-known Belmont murals, a series of pastoral landscapes each painted within a delightful trompe-l’oeil “frame.”

But the political and personal texture of the paintings is unmistakable. One landscape, Lake Superior (1862), looks out over its titular body of water to a sweep of trees on a far bank; the day is clouded and the mood sombre. As the Wallach’s curation makes clear, Duncanson went into self-imposed exile in Canada in 1863, fleeing Ohio and the war for Montréal; something in the landscape’s wistful gaze hints at the bloody war behind and the cold foreign country before the viewer, anticipating Duncanson’s own flight. In Flight of the Eagle (1856), Duncanson has placed among a lush forest two dead trees in the left foreground; one eagle rests on a leafless branch while another tentatively takes flight. The images of death and division, placed within their historical context of the late 1850’s and the Union’s rapid fracturing, can hardly have been accidental.

The Wallach (8th floor in Schermerhorn Hall) is open Wednesday-Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Robert S. Duncanson: An Antebellum African American Artist runs until December 8.