The dingy dirty canvas showed up at Doug Eisele’s Old World Restorations in Cincinnati in March 2009. The owner of the painting, a dentist from London, KY, had rescued the work from an obscure corner in ClaireBourne Antiques in Lexington by paying $900. It looked like it might need to be cleaned up a bit so he took it to Old World based on its excellent reputation.
When Eisele saw the painting he remarked, “That’s a nice painting” which turned out to be an understatement of some magnitude. He thought the work looked vaguely familiar but he couldn’t see a signature. As the cleaning progressed the letters “…son” emerged from the right corner and Eisele knew he was looking at a previously unknown work by former Cincinnati artist and resident Robert Scott Duncanson (African-American/ Canadian 1821-1872). He immediately called the owner suggesting he insure the painting for at least $100,000 but now he feels it would actually sell in the $300,000 range.
Eisele was familiar with Duncanson’s work having seen his eight mural works on exhibit at the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, formerly known as the Belmont, the home of Nicholas Longworth who commissioned the work in 1851. He also had previously restored several Duncanson works. Duncanson was born in Fayette, NY, the son a Scottish Canadian father and an African American mother making him a “free born person of color.” He was raised in Canada by his father to avoid racial conflicts, returning to the United States in 1841. He became a self-taught artist by copying prints and painting portraits. Seeking more commissions he set up a studio in Detroit in 1845 but returned to Cincinnati in 1846 and focused on landscapes of the Ohio River Valley inspired by works of the Hudson River School. By the early 1850s he was a recognized landscape artist.
He became associated with the abolitionist movement in 1848 through a commission by Charles Avery, an abolitionist Methodist minister, which established him within a network of abolitionist patrons for the rest of his life. He is considered to be the first African-American to make a living selling art.
Duncanson was noted for painting partly from real life and partly from imagination. Eisele feels this is the case with the current work. He believes the painting is a combination of the White Mountains of New Hampshire in the Hudson River School style and an unidentified European landscape.
But before he could make that judgment Eisele had to see enough of the painting to identify it and that took the restorative skills at Old World. The first task was to remove the layers of smoke, soot, dust and dirt that had accumulated on the surface over the last 140 years. Then the original over layer of yellowed damar varnish needed to be removed. As that process evolved the green sky began to turn back to blue but it revealed that significant over painting had been done at some point during a previous restoration. When the over painting was removed, using all reversible procedures, the sky returned to its original hue. Old World’s inch by inch restoration took nearly eight weeks to complete but the result was worth the wait.
The owner of the restored Duncnason has placed the work on long term loan to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, KY where the chief curator, Ruth Cloudman said, “It’s a fantastical landscape. When the opportunity came up to have one of his paintings on extended loan we knew that would be very exciting.”