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Monday, February 20, 2012

National Gallery of Art unveils rare painting by African-American artist

Robert Seldon Duncanson, American, 1821-1872
Still Life with Fruit and Nuts, 1848
Oil on board
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Gift of Ann and Mark Kington/The Kington Foundation and the Avalon Fund

Just in time for Black History Month is the first painting at the National Gallery of Art by Robert Seldon Duncanson (1821-1872), often called the first African-American artist to enjoy international acclaim.

The painting is Still Life with Fruit and Nuts, a pyramidal design of fruit with smooth surfaces which contrasts with textured nutshells.  It is one of about 12 Duncanson still-lifes known to exist. 
In a statement, Earl A. Powell III, the National Gallery's director, said that the National Gallery of Art had long been searching for one of Duncanson's renderings, and it continues its quest to find one of his landscapes. The National Gallery has a collection of almost 400 works by African-American artists. 

Duncanson, descended from freed Virginia slaves, was born in Seneca County, New York and lived with his father in Canada until he moved to his mother's home near Cincinnati when he was about 20 years old. He painted portraits, copied prints and taught himself the craft. A year after arriving at his mother's, he had three portraits accepted for a Cincinnati exhibition which his family was prohibited from attending because of their ethnicity.

In 1848, the year he painted the National Gallery's new work, Duncanson received a significant commission from a Methodist minister, Charles Avery, the first of several abolitionist patrons who sustained Duncanson throughout his career and helped re-direct the artist to landscape art.

During the Civil War (1861-1865), Duncanson moved to Canada and later to the United Kingdom where his art was well received. During the last years of his life, after he returned to Cincinnati in 1866, he painted some of his greatest pieces. He died in Detroit, and his art was largely forgotten until an exhibition in 1943 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York jump-started his name and works at major American museums, the last show at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 2009.
Associated with the Hudson River School, Duncanson copied the style of Thomas Cole who painted allegorical landscapes. The National Gallery says a Cincinnati exhibition of Cole's famous series of four paintings, The Voyage of Life (1842) likely inspired the black artist. (Cole's are in Gallery 60 and Duncanson's not far away in Gallery 69, both on the Main Floor near the Fourth Street entrance to the Gallery's West Building.) The Cole series is hypnotic and raises cascading thoughts: Where have I been and where am I going? And why am I doing it? The series of four paintings can create a fair amount of discomfort as viewers travel their own journeys of life and wonder about their paths, chosen and unchosen. Did it have this effect on Duncanson?

Thomas Cole, American, 1801 - 1848
The Voyage of Life: Childhood, 1842
oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund

Thomas Cole, 1801-1848
The Voyage of Life: Youth, 1842
oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund

Thomas Cole, 1801 - 1848
The Voyage of Life: Manhood, 1842
oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund

                                                         Thomas Cole, 1801 - 1848
                                                  The Voyage of Life: Old Age, 1842
                                                                       oil on canvas
                                             National Gallery of Art,Washington
                                                            Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund

The Duncanson acquisition was made possible by Ann and Mark Kington/The Kington Foundation and the Avalon Fund.

What: Still Live with Fruit and Nuts (1848) by Robert Seldon Duncanson
When: The National Gallery of Art is open daily from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday
Where: Gallery 69 at the West Building of the National Gallery of Art between 4th and 7th streets along Constitution Avenue
How much: No charge
Metro stations: Archives, Judiciary Square, Federal Triangle, L'Enfant Plaza and/or ride the Circulator bus with stops at the West Building
For more information: 202-737-4215

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