Duncanson also set out to see America, taking “sketching trips” throughout the Midwest, into Canada and down into the Hudson Valley, though it is not known if he ever met any of the painters who inspired him. He used those sketches to compose his paintings, some of which may include scenes from the region, but none of which are distinctly of the Hudson Valley.
Ketner writes that Duncanson emulated the romantic style and mission of Cole and Durand, “but he rarely created the kinds of dramatic and sublime views of the wilderness for which those artists are known, preferring instead more pastoral and picturesque scenes that he considered emblematic of the ideals of both the country at large and the free black community within it.”
His career got its start through a large commission by a Cincinnati art patron who hired Duncanson to create a suite of landscape mural paintings for his mansion, which is now the Taft Museum of Art. The museum calls the murals “evidence of Duncanson’s most ambitious artistic creations… Together, the eight paintings constitute one of the largest existing pre-Civil War domestic mural decorations in the United States.”
Duncanson himself wasn’t a virulent abolitionist. His own son urged him to explore African American themes more overtly in his works. “I have no color on the brain; all I have on the brain is paint,” Duncanson reportedly wrote to him. Though he was not on the front lines of the anti-slavery battle, he most likely contributed work to an abolitionist panel that traveled around the country, though this is not known for certain. The panel, a 600-yard-long abolitionist panorama called “Mammoth Pictorial Tour of the United States Comprising Views of the African Slave Trade,” was advertised as “Painted by Negros.”
The coming Civil War brought about the end of Cincinnati’s black artistic community. “Racial tensions were running high in the city and pro-slavery sentiment was directed at the free black population,” Ketner writes. “Duncanson responded to the grave political climate by creating Land of the Lotus Eaters, his most ambitious easel painting.” Ketner says that the painting, inspired by The Odyssey, “offered a plea for peace in a canvas where dark-skinned figures cross the river to white soldiers. The painting went on public display in the city as the war erupted.”
At the height of the war, in 1863, Duncanson moved to Montreal, and in 1865 to the United Kingdom, which he toured with The Land of the Lotus Eaters. He was celebrated in both countries; the prestigious London Art Journal called him a “master of landscape painting.” After the war he returned to Cincinnati and painted many scenes of the Scottish landscape. But his health began to decline, both physically and psychologically. “He went insane,” Ketner says, “thinking he was possessed of the spirit of a past artistic master — who was female, of all things. This is also part of what makes his story so interesting.” Though there is no proof, he most likely suffered from lead poisoning, which many itinerant house painters acquired from mixing their own paints. He died in Detroit on December 21, 1872, at age 51.
“He died at the perfect time,” Ketner says, because this style of painting fell out of favor soon after. Though less well known than the Valley’s homegrown artists, Duncanson nevertheless has left a worthy legacy. “In the west he was considered one of the most prominent painters,” Ketner says. “Some of his paintings are every bit the equal to the work of Cole and Church, but his true value is in being a person of color trying to participate in the American Dream.”