A major painting by 19th-century landscape artist Robert Seldon Duncanson (1821–1872), the first African-American artist to achieve international acclaim, has been purchased by Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Painted in 1869, the work titled The Caves was originally owned by Cincinnati Abolitionist Richard Sutton Rust (1815–1906), and it remained in his family until the museum purchased it in late 2012.
Because it has been in a private collection for nearly 150 years, the painting will be accessible to the public for the first time beginning May 4, when it is displayed in the Amon Carter’s galleries.
“Duncanson is an immensely important figure in American art,” says Andrew J. Walker, director of the Amon Carter. “He was a self-taught, black artist from Cincinnati and a leading landscape painter of his time, which was a monumental accomplishment during the Civil War and Reconstruction periods. Owning a work by this esteemed artist greatly enriches our collection.”
Impressive in scale, the painting is approximately three feet tall and depicts an intimate view of the wilderness, with unusual geographic features of steep ravines and sandstone cliffs perforated by a canopy of evergreens and a trio of caverns.
Duncanson’s paintings seldom overtly depict the political and cultural issues of the years surrounding the Civil War, such as slavery and discrimination, according to Margi Conrads, deputy director of art and research. Instead, the artist may have included subtle cues in his landscapes that conveyed his anti-slavery position.
“His depiction of caves poses intriguing questions about whether the painting includes references to the abolitionist movement or the role of African-Americans in everyday society,” says Conrads. “Caves were among the safe havens for runaway slaves through the Civil War. Additionally, both before and after the War, African-Americans guided tourists through caves, and it’s possible Duncanson is referencing this in his painting through the figure at the cavern’s mouth.”
Four watercolors from the museum’s permanent collection by Adrien Mayers (1801?–1833) will be exhibited near the Duncanson painting through September 4. The watercolors portray an early view of Cincinnati, Duncanson’s adopted hometown and the place that nurtured his career.