A luminous 19th-century landscape and a contemporary tapestry that confronts viewers with Civil War-era racial violence, both by important African American artists, are the latest works announced by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Flatboat Men (1865) by Robert Scott Duncanson builds on the collection’s strength in Hudson River School paintings, joining works by Jasper Cropsey, Thomas Moran and Asher Durand. Duncanson is thought to be the first black artist in the United States to make a living as a painter and become internationally known. A Warm Summer Evening in 1863 (2008) by Kara Walker supplements other post-modern works in the museum’s collection that use unconventional media to rethink the past. Walker is widely acclaimed for exploring the intersection of race, sexuality and violence through the traditionally proper Victorian medium of cut-paper silhouettes.
Shimmering sky and water envelope the minuscule figures in Robert Scott Duncanson’s Flatboat Men. This pastoral idealization of American industry and wilderness, painted late in Duncanson’s career, radiates a serenity characteristic of his work.
“This painting documents the timber industry but also romanticizes the landscape in a manner typical of the Hudson River School,” said Manuela Well-Off-Man, assistant curator. “The tiny scale of the figures emphasizes the insignificance of the human within the grand scale of nature.”
Largely self-taught as an artist, Duncanson was born in Seneca County, New York sometime between 1817 and 1821 and was raised in the more tolerant atmosphere of his father’s native Canada. He returned to his mother’s home near Cincinnati, Ohio in 1841 and thereafter traveled widely, working as an itinerant artist and sketching landscapes throughout the United States and Canada. In the early 1850s a prominent Cincinnati landowner and abolitionist, Nicholas Longworth, commissioned a series of eight large murals for his home that marked the largest single project in Duncanson’s career and financed the first of several European tours. Late in life, Duncanson suffered from mental illness that may have been linked to lead paint poisoning from his early work as a house painter and years of grinding and mixing paints. He died in 1872.
Duncanson’s Longworth murals may be viewed at the Taft Museum in Cincinnati; his work is also represented in the Detroit Institute of Arts, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Ga., and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., among others. His paintings were exhibited in the United States and abroad during his lifetime and are the subject of growing interest among collectors and scholars.
Kara Walker is part of a new generation of artists who look to the past for inspiration, presenting historic images in new and sometimes unsettling ways. She is best known for creating theatrical room-size tableaux of black cut-paper silhouettes – often stereotypical figures from the Deep South engaged in acts of extreme violence and cruelty. Walker brings a new dimension to her work in A Warm Summer Evening in 1863. This tapestry, Walker’s first, is based on an engraving originally published in Harper’s Magazine during the Civil War that documented the destruction of an orphanage for black children in New York City. By choosing this event, Walker focuses attention on labor tensions between immigrants and freed slaves in the North. The black felt silhouette of a lynched female figure that is superimposed on the scene, her noose tied in a neat bow, is not based on a real person, but effectively telegraphs the horror of the racially motivated violence.
“It’s just this type of collision between documented history and imagined history that makes Kara Walker’s work so strong,” said Don Bacigalupi, director. “This work speaks to the complexity of race relations in the Civil War era.”
In this work Walker has also juxtaposed pop culture and folk art forms with tapestry, a format originally made for the wealthy elite. In the exhibition catalog Demons, Yarns & Tales: Tapestries by Contemporary Artists Walker said: “The engraving, which is an early example of mass-media information, is very crude … I liked the irony of transferring this lowly craft into a medium once used for kings and princes. There’s also an unwitting humility about the cutout silhouettes. It’s an undervalued craft form.”
Kara Walker was born in Stockton, Calif. in 1969 and moved to Stone Mountain, Ga. at age 13, a cultural shift that profoundly shaped her development as an artist. She earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Atlanta College of Art in 1991 and her Master of Fine Arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994. At age 27 she became one of the youngest recipients of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation (“Genius”) Fellowship, and in 2002 she was chosen to represent the United States in the São Paulo Biennial in Brazil. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, with the 2007 exhibition Kara Walker: My Complement, My Oppressor, My Enemy, My Love organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis providing the most comprehensive overview of her work to date. Walker currently lives in New York, where she is a professor of visual arts at Columbia University. Her work is included in the collections of numerous major museums, among them the Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art, both in New York City, and the Art Institute of Chicago .