Biography: Robert Seldon Duncanson was the first African American artist to find success within the American fine art scene. He is primarily known as a landscape painter working in a Hudson River School style of the mid-19th century.
Duncanson was born into a free black community in Ohio. He had no formal artistic training. He apprenticed to the family business in house painting, and taught himself oil painting by copying popular prints and making portraits. No documentation has been found as to his formal education, but his letters and painting titles show his knowledge of the romantic literature that was popular in his day.
Duncanson matured as an artist in Cincinnati, which remained his hometown, though he’d also live in Detroit and Montreal and travel through Canada and the UK. In the mid-1800s, Cincinnati was a cultural center—known as the Athens of the west—with several significant painters in residence, including Worthington Whittredge and Louis Sonntag, who would be a good friend and travel partner of Duncanson. It was also a hub for abolitionist activity, with a significant free black community. Abolitionists would be key patrons in the 1850s as Duncanson emerged as one of the most respected landscape painters in the West.
Distressed by the strife of the Civil War, Duncanson traveled through Canada, Scotland, and England in the 1860s. He exhibited his major work and made sketches for new paintings. He would also travel to Scotland in 1871. Like many Americans, Duncanson admired English romantic literature, including the work of Sir Walter Scott. Scott’s 1814 novel Waverly provided the inspiration for his scene outside Doune Castle and other paintings.