Robert S. Duncanson, Landscape with Rainbow, 1859, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
One of the problems with learning is that you keep finding out how much you don’t know. And this week I’m finding out the full extent of my ignorance. I should probably come clean: American art has never been one of my main areas of study, although I know enough about it to know that it didn’t start with the Abstract Expressionists in the 1940s. As the ‘Story of Modern Art’ used to be told, New York became the centre of the Art World after the Second World War – almost as if nothing had happened there before. I do understand the compulsion to pin down one ‘Story of Art’, but nothing is ever as simple as you think. Having said that, when, exactly, did ‘American Art’ get going? Benjamin West, the 2nd President of the Royal Academy, was born in Pennsylvania in 1738: was he an ‘American Artist’? Given that the War of Independence was fought between 1775-83 you could argue that he was not. But at what point did art from the North American continent stop being Colonial and become its own thing? I am, of course, talking about art evolving from the Western European tradition. I know there are whole areas of Native American Art that should be brought into discussion, but as, in this case, my ignorance is complete, I wouldn’t dare to discuss it.
Some would argue that the first truly American artistic movement was the Hudson River School, a group of landscape artists influenced by Romanticism, and thoroughly in awe of the geography of the North American Continent – particularly, as the name suggests, the area surrounding the Hudson River in the State of New York. However, until the exhibition American Sublime at Tate Britain in 2002 I was completely unaware of it – and have subsequently seen very little: relatively few 19thCentury American paintings are held in British collections, and I don’t think I’ve been to the States since 2004…
One of the key paintings of the Hudson River School is Frederic Edwin Church’s Niagara – capturing the full scope and scale of the waterfall. It was enormously successful when first exhibited in 1857, and, at the time, it was suggested that no one would paint a landscape as grandiose again. However, that is precisely what Robert S. Duncanson attempted to do in his Landscape with Rainbow just two years later.
But who was Duncanson, and why have I never heard of him before? As my knowledge of Church’s work is limited, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, but judging by the title of a Smithsonian Magazine article published in 2011, I am not alone: America’s Forgotten Landscape Painter. I will give you a link at the end of the blog. What becomes clear is that however successful Duncanson had been, his name disappeared from the singular ‘Story’ of art shortly after his death in 1872. In his day he had been big – very big. And not just in the States – in Canada he was seen as one of earliest ‘cultivators of the fine arts’, and on a visit to London he was declared a master of landscape painting.
On one occasion he even visited Alfred, Lord Tennyson at his home on the Isle of Wight, taking with him what is now seen as his masterwork, Land of the Lotus Eaters – inspired by the Poet Laureate’s similarly-titled poem. Given that it measures 225 x 134 cm – not quite as wide, but bigger overall than Church’s magisterial Niagara – that must have taken some doing. He was a determined man. The effort certainly paid off, as Tennyson reassured him that, “Your landscape is a land in which one loves to wander and linger.”
Art Historians argue about the extent that issues of race were important in the work of the man who is arguably the first successful African-American artist. In a letter to his son, Duncanson himself said, “I have no color on the brain; all I have on the brain is paint.” However, in Land of the Lotus Eaters the ease and comfort enjoyed by the lucky few – inevitably white – is only possible because they have black servants. In other paintings there are similar references: painting the world around him, they would have been impossible to avoid. But Duncanson’s main concern was to be an artist, which, under the circumstances, was statement enough.
Race is not, it would seem, the ‘subject’ of Landscape with Rainbow: there are only two people, and both are white. Given their clothes – his trousers are rolled up, her skirt is lifted, revealing a petticoat, I would assume they are children, perhaps put in charge of the herd of cows which wander along the road. He carries a stick, and gestures towards the rainbow.
Duncanson leaves no doubt that this is the main focus of the landscape. It burns through the sky, almost more like a multi-coloured meteor. Each of the seven colours appear, even though they fade in and out as is so often the case when seen for real, with sporadic rain, and uncertain light. In addition to its brilliance, we are directed towards it by other elements of the composition. Not only does the boy point to it, but the track on which the children stand, along which the lowing herd winds slowly, is leading towards it. There are also flashes of sunlight, one illuminating the foreground directly under the children, another catching some rocks and plants below the right-hand trio of cows, which together form a virtual path of light towards the rainbow’s mythic golden end.
Is it a coincidence, therefore, that more or less at the end of the rainbow there is a house? I really wouldn’t think so. An artist chooses what to paint and where to paint it – he must have had a reason to include the house. Sometimes choices are governed by style, or ethos, the decision to replicate what can actually be seen, and sometimes, by the will to summon up a world that is pure imagination. Unlike Church’s Niagara, inspiring awe by encompassing the grandeur and sheer scale of geological fact, Duncanson wanted to create a mood, by sharing an idea: there’s no place like home.
The fact is, if this is a real place, the both light and weather have gone awry. For one thing, you only get a rainbow when there is both sun and rain, and I can’t see that there is enough cloud. That could be something to do with the photographic reproduction, I suppose, but I doubt it. And where, precisely, is the sun? When talking about Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral (POTD 47) I explained precisely why you could never see a rainbow as Constable had depicted it. And I suspect the same is true here. It’s such a masterful painting, that I can’t actually tell where the light is supposed to be coming from. The mood is crepuscular – the purple distant hills, the sense of plodding homeward, the gradual darkening of the sky, and above all, the brilliant yellow light on the distant horizon, suggesting it is sunset. But if the sun is in the distance, there is no way we could see a rainbow here, nor could there be a rainbow here. And we couldn’t we see a rainbow in the same place as the children do, they are too far away. But this is art, and the meteorological incongruities do not matter. This is a magical, enchanted place – every cloud is lit from a different direction, to make each look real, rather than actually being real. What Duncanson has painted is an ineffable sense of calm. The cows head home, the children follow them, all will be well. And that is, of course, the standard symbolism for the rainbow – all will be well – as defined by God’s covenant with Noah (POTD 37).
Robert S. Duncanson was an African-American artist painting this landscape in 1859, two years before the outbreak of the Civil War. The Southern Confederate States, who continued to support Slavery, would fight the Northern Unionists. An earlier painting, dating from around 1851, is entitled View of Cincinnati, Ohio from Covington, Kentucky. Of all of Duncanson’s landscapes, this is – potentially – the most overtly political. The Ohio River, which separates Cincinnati and Covington, was one of the boundaries between North and South. Duncanson – born free in 1821 in Fayette, New York – spent much of his life in Cincinnati, also in the ‘free’ North. It can be seen in the background of the painting, populous and thriving. In the foreground, in Covington, black slaves are labouring on the plantations under the watchful eye of the white owners. When Landscape with Rainbow was painted some eight years later, the war was still two years away, but tensions were rising. Nevertheless, the painting gives the sense that there might yet be the possibility of peace. It hints that there might just be somewhere idyllic, calm – Arcadian, even – where people could live in peace and harmony. Somewhere over the rainbow, perhaps?
If you would like to know more about this wonderful artist, I really recommend the article I mentioned above, America’s Forgotten Landscape Painter.
And on a completely different note, Art History Abroad has just announced my next online lecture, at 6pm on Wednesday 24 June: Reflecting on the Power of Art – Diego Velázquez.