Robert S. Duncanson



Published August 2020

Robert S. Duncanson (American, 1821-1872), “Recollections of Italy“, 1864. Oil on canvas. The Dorothy C. Archibald and Thomas L. Archibald Fund and a fractional gift of E. Thomas Williams, Jr., and Auldlyn Higgins Williams, 1991.81

In Recollections of Italy, painted by Robert S. Duncanson in 1864, the artist casts a warm glowing light over a panoramic vista of ancient ruins. In the foreground of the painting, fragments of ornamented capitals, fallen masonry, and stone markers lie half buried in the ground as if becoming part of the natural landscape. Sections of an aqueduct dripping with moss emerge from a lake adjacent to a temple complex and a circular structure that evokes the Temple of the Sybil (or Temple of Vesta) at Tivoli, built during the 1st century BCE. The buildings, formidable enough to sustain about 1,800 years of human activity, are shown in various states of dilapidation indicating that nothing built is immune to the effects of time. The ruins have been stripped of their original function and significance to represent a fading past. A coy meeting between two peasants, probably shepherds, surrounded by animals, suggests an ancient idyllic landscape. 

As the landscape recedes, the mountains lose their saturation and become hazy, loosely serving as a metaphor for the recollections that informed the painting. Though Duncanson painted Recollections of Italy in 1864, he based the view on sketches he made during a trip to Italy in 1853. Largely self-trained, Duncanson pursued his career as an artist by sketching from nature and reproducing landscapes, most conspicuously those by British-born American-based artist, Thomas Cole. However, in his landscapes, Duncanson did not merely copy Cole’s aesthetics; his difficult and extraordinary circumstances as an artist informed his approach to the landscape and geography.

As the grandson of an emancipated slave from Virginia, Duncanson was forced to negotiate rapidly changing perceptions of race and status as the Civil War destabilized the socio-political, economic, and ethical ideology of the United States. Without much concrete information about Duncanson, his artistic career is often understood through the records of his active role in several abolitionist causes. Duncanson had a solid base of support and patronage during a long period of residency in Cincinnati, where the presence of a strong economy and abolitionist movement seems to have protected Duncanson, other formerly enslaved individuals, and their descendants from the racial violence and discrimination pervasive in the rest of the state. When the artist returned to Cincinnati from his journey to Italy, he participated in creating the panorama conceived by the enterprising artist James Presley Ball, the Mammoth Pictorial Tour of the United States Comprising Views of the African Slave Trade. Unveiled in 1855, the panorama described the geography of the American slave economy and “the horrors of slavery from capture in Africa through middle passage to bondage” in 21,600 square feet.

In May 1861, Duncanson was recognized by the Daily Cincinnati Gazette as “the best landscape painter in the West.” However, as the Civil War persisted, Duncanson entered self-imposed exile in Montreal, where he painted several panels including Recollections of Italy. Though Duncanson sold his work on the international market and established the first painting school in Canada specializing in landscapes, his accomplishments and contributions to art and education have been marginalized in the history of art, largely due to racial discrimination, Duncanson’s lack of formal training, and his dedication to a genre of painting associated with white artists.

The archaeological remains and monuments of antiquity that Duncanson recorded on his trip to Italy accommodated an ideal of ancient republican democracy and consensus that Duncanson may have considered unattainable under the system of slavery and supremacy that anchored terms of the Civil War and the U.S. economy. While Recollections of Italy offers a painted commentary about the endurance of history, in the context of Duncanson’s struggle, the panel also represents a Utopian ideal, where humans are equally subject to the capricious behavior of nature.

Written by Janna Israel, former Adult and Academic Programs Manager