I was wondering about the first known African-American artist and about the representation of Blacks in American art. I was wondering if the two might even be related – from whose point of view were we seeing Blacks in American art – and did the representation change once African-American artists started painting?
Robert S. Duncanson (1822 – 1871)
After Joshua Johnson, the next known Antebellum Era African-American artist is the exceptionally talented landscape artist Robert Seldon Duncanson (1822 – 1871). Born biracial and free in New York, Duncanson painted literary inspired landscapes in the Hudson River School style of American art.
Racial overtones are found in two of his paintings: View of Cincinnati, Ohio from Covington, Kentucky and Uncle Tom and Little Eva, 1853 painted a year after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the View he depicted two white children standing next to a Black man with scythe and a Black woman in the background hanging clothes to dry. He also showed a white family out on a leisurely picnic while the two African-Americans worked. Kentucky had still not abolished slavery, and rural Kentucky contrasts sharply with the bustling city across the river. Through this painting Duncanson gives a visual of his outlook on slavery and the dependence of the bustling city on slave laborers. Cincinnati was a hotbed of anti-slavery movement, and Duncanson not only participated in abolitionist activities, he also sold paintings and donated money to the cause.
Duncanson took inspiration from literary classics when he painted – he based his famous painting Land of the Lotus Eaters on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem and presented it to him when he went to study art in Europe.
Duncanson was the first truly successful African-American artist, not only in the US but also in Europe.