Hurry! The wonderful exhibition of Robert S. Duncanson paintings at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery is closing on Saturday. The show is small, so that you can study every painting. Tonight, I got a semi-private curator walk through, but the exhibit stands alone with a lot of interpretive material.
Duncanson was really extraordinary. Born free to an African American family of craftspeople, he was inspired by Thomas Cole to become a landscape painter. His spiritual light aligns him with second generation Hudson River School artists.
A bit of an itinerant, he worked his way to Cincinnati, before the Civil War. There, he lived off commissions (check out his murals now part of the Taft Museum, see left) and collaborating with a well-known daguerreotypist, James Presley Ball, also African American.
They lived through the hellish antebellum period of riots and fires in that city that bordered North and South.
Imagine how terrified Duncanson must have felt as a free black man in that tumultuous area. Finally, iIn 1862, he exiled himself to Canada and continued to paint landscapes and Neo-Classical scenes, few with overt political overtones. The curator said he never had a harsh word for or about anyone.
Duncanson also made two Grand Tours to Europe, exhibiting in England, not the most open-minded of cultures. That says something about the appeal of his work. So get over to Columbia to see this show. It’s a real rarity to have so many of his remarkable works in one place.