dunson    The premiere exhibition, "Robert S. Duncanson: The Spiritual Striving of the Freedman’s Sons" opened on May 1, 2011 at the Thomas Cole National Site in Catskill, N.Y. I was transported into the environment that inspired Thomas Cole as I approached the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. I drove into the landscape with the Hudson River in the foreground, a panorama of the Catskill Mountains in the middle and high in the background, Olana the enchanting estate of Coles’ student Frederick Church.
     The historic event at Cedar Grove, the birthplace of American Art, was the first official recognition in the East of Duncanson’s relationship to the Hudson River School of Art. His body of work received resounding endorsement by keynote lecturer Joseph D. Ketner author of “The Emergence of the African-American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson 1821-1872”, the first full-length biography of Duncanson.
Thomas Cole, the father of American landscape painting and founder of the Hudson River School of Art in Catskill, New York greatly influenced Duncanson in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Duncanson, a free person of color in Ohio during slavery, cultivated craft knowledge as a house painter to achieve success as a self-taught portrait artist. With freedom and the stimulation of Cincinnati, Ohio, then known as “Athens of the West”, he immersed himself in literature and fine arts, absorbed the landscape paintings of Thomas Cole and Frederick Church and dedicated himself to mastering landscape painting.
     The painting, Uncle Tom and Little Eva 1853, in which Duncanson portrays a scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin; has been interpreted as revealing his personal response to slavery. He is thought to have hoped for a religious resolution of slavery through salvation for Little Eva and for all slaves. (Photo---Uncle Tom and Little Eva, Robert S. Duncanson, 1853. Oil on canvas. Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo ©Detroit Institute of Arts.)
    The support of abolitionists enabled him to travel to Canada, through Britain and Europe to Italy to complete a “grand-tour” to finish his art education. According to Ketner, Duncanson began his “great picture” in 1860 and completed it in 1861 based on Tennyson’s poem “The Lotus Eaters.” It portrays a scene from Homer’s Odyssey in which he “depicts white soldiers resting on the banks of a river in a tropical landscape being served by a train of dark-complexioned natives.” Ketner concluded that, “Duncanson decried the life-style of the slaveholding society and predicted a decade of war and a decade of recovery for the nation at the crossroads.” The Land of Lotus Eaters 1861, the Royal Court Sweden.
     I explored the full exhibition before the lecture and was captivated by Time’s Temple 1853 from the Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. It portrays a cycle of empire with the end of empire dominating the foreground and the dawn of a new era on the horizon, perhaps Emancipation. It epitomizes Duncanson’s control of a grand historical painting and his determination to produce his interpretation of The Course of Empire.
After Ketner’s masterful lecture interpreting Duncanson’s body of work, I wanted his autograph on the biography and exhibition program. When I approached the table, he stood up. I introduced myself as Walter J. Bogan; he took my hand, moved-in-close, looked into my eyes and mischievously asked. “Are you Walter O. Evans, the famous collector of African American Art?” After we shared a joyous laugh, he told me of his friendship with Dr. and Mrs. Walter O. Evans, their love of Duncanson and the pride of place Man Fishing 1848, Flight of the Eagle 1856 and American Landscape 1862 holds in their collection.
     He told me that Dr. Walter O. Evans had donated the collection to the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Regarded as one of the premier collections of African American art in the nation, it has been widely exhibited with the print catalogue, “The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art” with a forward by Andrea D. Barnwell. The opening of the Walter O. Evans Center for African American Art in the SCAD Museum of Art on October 29, 2011 is historic for Savannah and African American Art.
     In “A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present” Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson conclude: “Today Duncanson’s paintings can be understood as the searching and idealistic dreams of a lonely and sensitive man with a deep love of nature and the American Landscape. Ultimately Duncanson will be considered one of the most unique and noteworthy landscape painters of nineteenth-century America.” 
 
  (Top Photo)---Uncle Tom and Little Eva, Robert S. Duncanson, 1853. Oil on canvas. Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo ©Detroit Institute of Art