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Robert Duncanson (1821–1872), the Black artist of the Hudson River School, presents a challenge for scholars. His varied output—still lifes, genre, allegorical subjects, murals, and landscapes—presents a body of work yet to be fully deciphered. Guiding to a deeper interpretation are the extraordinary circumstances of a Black artist in the volatile 1850s, a fulcrum of experience forced between the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862. Recent discoveries of long lost paintings by the artist, period literature and newspaper clippings, and maps and census data provide an eye-opener of context to Duncanson’s artistic journey. Applied to his art, this material reveals the hunger for freedom and basic human rights, all set in perilous but beautiful landscapes.

1F2D7127 95A5 46C3 B14F 92E61CDEDEEERobert S. Duncanson (1821–1872), French Broad River, circa 18501–1851. Oil on canvas, 17 × 24 inches.

Robert Duncanson was born in 1821 to two free Black parents living in Fayette, New York, adjacent to the Seneca-Erie Canal extension project. After the opening of the canal, his family went west to Monroe, Michigan, where, when Duncanson came of age, he followed his father into the house painting trade. His interests lay in fine art, however, and he trained himself to paint still lifes and portraits from prints and drawings. A need to be in an environment where he would have more financial results caused Duncanson to move to Cincinnati, Ohio, which, because of its educated German immigrants and support of the arts, was referred to as the “Athens of the West.”

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