Written by Sophie Lynford, Acting Assistant Curator of American Art
The term “Hudson River School” first appeared in print in 1879 in a review by the American art critic Earl Shinn. “Hudson River School” is an appellation that is still broadly applied to landscape paintings produced in the United States during the 19th century. Shinn, though, did not intend the moniker as a compliment. In his article, he pitted the Hudson River School against the newly minted American Impressionists. Landscape painters such as Martin Johnson Heade, David Johnson, Worthington Whittredge, and Jasper Francis Cropsey adhered to what Shinn believed was an outmoded style. Works by these artists are currently on view in our exhibition A Hudson River School Legacy: The Newman Bequest and Other Gifts. They hang alongside paintings by Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Albert Bierstadt, long acknowledged as the leading figures of 19th-century American landscape painting.
First used as an insult, the designation “Hudson River School” has shed its pejorative connotations and is today widely regarded as the country’s first homegrown art movement. But the label “Hudson River School” carries with it a set of imperfect assumptions: that its artists represented the Hudson River Valley and its surrounds; that its adherents shared a set of practices; and that the painters—who did not use this label to describe themselves—were unified into a group that subscribed to the same artistic principles. Our current exhibition, however, allows us to dismantle some of these assumptions.
The exhibition demonstrates the heterogeneity of experiences and aesthetics of these landscape painters and reveals that they cannot be neatly accommodated under one art-historical umbrella. They did not confine themselves to representing the Hudson River Valley: Church’s Cayambe (1858) features an Andean volcano; Louis Remy Mignot was fascinated by Ecuador’s built environment, as his three works in the exhibition attest; and Heade’s Study of an Orchid (1872) was part of a group of over one hundred canvases inspired by the artist’s trip to Brazil.
One painter in the exhibition, Robert Scott Duncanson (1821–1872), never painted the Hudson River Valley, Catskills, Adirondacks, or Connecticut River Valley—the regions made famous by artists in the Northeast. His career occupies a distinct position in the history of American painting. Duncanson is often referred to as the only African American painter of the Hudson River School. Indeed, he is regarded as the first African American artist in the United States to achieve an international reputation. Duncanson’s unconventional career and body of work allow us to challenge the notion that artists classified as members of the Hudson River School were a homogeneous group.
Born in 1821 in Seneca County, New York, Duncanson was the son of a free Black father and a free Black mother, whose family, by some accounts, was three-generations removed from slavery. Duncanson spent the majority of his childhood in Canada with his father, reuniting with his mother in 1841 in Cincinnati. Over the 1840s, Duncanson progressed from housepainter to traveling portraitist to a well-respected fixture in Cincinnati’s burgeoning art scene.
Although slavery was abolished in Ohio in 1802, Cincinnati was a border town between the North and the South and the site of several violent encounters between its black and white communities throughout the 19th century. Duncanson’s career, which ended with his death in 1872, spanned three decades, and during that time he encountered the city first as an antebellum center for abolitionist activity and later during the tumultuous eras of Emancipation and Reconstruction.
Few artists of color received significant attention in the 19th-century art world, which was, both before and after his time, dominated by white male artists living in northeastern states. Reviews of his work locally and abroad rarely mentioned the color of Duncanson’s skin. Nonetheless, Duncanson’s social position as a black artist was formative in the development of his career. Duncanson painted portraits of several local anti-slavery advocates including James G. Birney, Reverend Robert H. Bishop, Lewis Cass, and Richard S. Rust. Other prominent abolitionists such as Reverend Charles Avery, Senator Charles Sumner, and Henry A. Walker were either gifted paintings by Duncanson or commissioned works by the artist.
There are other reasons Duncanson resists characterization as a Hudson River School painter. Instead of the depictions of famous or characteristic American scenery painted by his contemporaries, many of Duncanson’s landscapes incorporate mythical themes, taking inspiration from works by the British Romantic poets and novelists, including William Wordsworth, Walter Scott, and Thomas Moore. The masterpiece of Duncanson’s career, Land of the Lotos Eaters, was based on Alfred Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters,” which was itself inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey. Duncanson was less attracted to the texts by American authors that his contemporaries found most resonant, including those by transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and writers William Cullen Bryant and James Fenimore Cooper.
Duncanson’s attraction to Romantic poetry developed on trips to Europe taken over a period of 20 years, funded by wealthy Cincinnati patrons and a local anti-slavery league. These grand tours of the continent, a rite of passage for many contemporary American painters, allowed artists like Duncanson to study works by old masters and witness the picturesque ruins that dotted the Italian countryside. Two paintings by Duncanson on view in A Hudson River School Legacy are works he completed in the U.S. following his first trip abroad in 1853. Italian Landscape with Ruin and Italian Landscape (1861) are small oval canvases depicting imagined Italian scenery, featuring ancient or medieval ruins. Although these two paintings are of modest dimensions, they testify assertively to Duncanson’s visual literacy not only with the work of his American predecessors but also with the oeuvre of the 17th-century painter Claude Lorrain and the picturesque tradition he established, as well as the painterly conventions of British Romanticism. Duncanson, as did his contemporaries, painted American landscapes in the middle decades of the 19th century and crossed the Atlantic in search of a more expansive pictorial repertoire. But these Italian compositions powerfully evince both the uniqueness of experience and the diverse sources that belonged exclusively to Duncanson.
Banner image: Detail of Land of the Lotos Eaters. Robert S. Duncanson. 1861. Oil on canvas. Swedish Royal Collections, Stockholm.
- John K. Howat, American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art: Distributed by H.N. Abrams, 1987).
- Joseph D. Ketner, “Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872): The Late Literary Landscape Paintings,” American Art Journal 15.1 (1983): 35–47.
- David M. Lubin, Picturing a Nation: Art and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century America (Yale University Press, 1994).
- Robert S. Duncanson: A Centennial Exhibition, Cincinnati Art Museum March 16 – April 30 1972 (Cincinnati: Cincinnati Art Museum, 1972).
- Margaret Rose Vendryes, “Race Identity/Identifying Race: Robert S. Duncanson and Nineteenth-Century American Painting,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 27.1 (2001): 82–104.