Robert S. Duncanson: An Antebellum African American Artist

September 5–December 8, 2012

Guest Curator: Joseph D. Ketner II

Clearing in the Forest Hunting in the Woods Mountain Pool Pennsylvania Landscape Vale of Kashmir

Robert S. Duncanson: An Antebellum African American Artist is the first New York City survey of rarely-seen paintings by the nineteenth-century pioneer landscape artist. Curated by renowned Duncanson scholar, Joseph D. Ketner II, the exhibition gathers more than 20 paintings as well as drawings and contextual materials. Ranging from the 1840s to the 1870s, together these present an overview of the artist's life, his milieu, and his development.

Duncanson (1821–1872) was, at the height of his career, considered "the best landscape painter in the West." Based in Cincinnati, Ohio—then the largest and most prosperous city in the western United States—he was the principal artist among a vibrant group of mid-century Ohio River Valley landscape painters. During his self-imposed exile from the Civil War in Canada, England, Scotland, and Italy, his work resonated with international audiences. Duncanson participated in the national fascination with landscape, and used North American vistas as metaphors to express America's cultural identity. He followed the model established by New York's "Hudson River School" painters Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand, creating pastoral and picturesque views that strove to elevate these scenes by conveying grand ideas with moral lessons.

Duncanson achieved his artistic success despite the restrictions under which he worked as an African American, or "free colored person." While clearly within the idiom of Romanticism and American landscape painting, he was able to subtly express the distinctive viewpoint of an African American in the pre-Civil War era. "Close readings of his work in the context of the political and social circumstances that shaped his life," curator Joseph D. Ketner II notes, "endow his paintings with complex, nuanced meaning."

"This is a rare glimpse into history," newly-appointed Director and Chief Curator of the Wallach, Deborah Cullen, adds. "I am so pleased to be presenting this special project as the first of my tenure at Columbia. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to closely examine these exquisite and meaningful paintings."


Curator's Talk: Robert S. Duncanson: An Antebellum African American Artist, with Joseph D. Ketner II
Thursday, September 13, 2012, 5:30–6:30 p.m.
Reception follows; free and open to the public.

History, Community & Creativity: A Roundtable Discussion
Thursday, November 8, 2012, 5–6 p.m.
Stronach Center, 8th Floor, Schermerhorn Hall
Followed by a gallery viewing; free and open to the public.


S. Maureen Burke, Professor of Art History, Savannah College of Art and Design
Currently a Visiting Scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, Burke is pursuing research for various publications in interdisciplinary areas and in African American art history. With an M.A. and Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts, she was a Fulbright Scholar to Italy, an NEH Fellow, and previously served as the founding director and chief curator of the SCAD Museum of Art as well as the founding director of the Walter O. Evans Center for African American Studies.

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Associate Professor of American Art, University of Pennsylvania
Since arriving at Penn in 2005, DuBois Shaw has taught courses on race, gender and sexuality in American art. Her research has focused on the relationship between 19th-century artists, their patrons, and their subjects; contemporary artists and the history of African enslavement in the New World; and the use of African art and religious imagery work by African American artists. She has published on the art of Kara Walker, Edward Mitchell Bannister, William Matthew Prior, and Richard Yarde, and is completing a book on the life and subject matter of Sargent Johnson.

Fred Wilson, Artist
Wilson's artistic practice reconsiders social and historical narratives, raising questions about erasure and inclusion. He investigates how interpretations of historical truth and cultural value are shaped by institutions and systems of display. Born in 1954 in the Bronx, Wilson has exhibited internationally and has represented the United States at the 50th Venice Biennale (2003). His many accolades include a prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant (1999). Wilson serves on the Board of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and is represented by The Pace Gallery, New York.

This conversation is co-presented by The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, the School of the Arts, and the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia University in the City of New York.

Supplementary Materials

Musical Selections: An Exhibition Soundtrack