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'The Amazing Artist'

February 05, 2012|By Eve Begley Kiehm

"I have no color on the brain; all I have on the brain is paint." — Robert Duncanson

Young Robert Duncanson dipped the paint brush into the paint pot and carefully outlined the wood window frame of his customer's house near Cincinnati. He was tired. It was a hot day. And, most importantly, he was tired of painting houses.

"What I really want to paint are beautiful places," he said aloud.

Almost everywhere he looked he saw pictures. In the fields and the trees, in the hills and the rivers. And they were all crying out, "Paint me!"

He studied books of the world's great artists and felt it was the land, the sky and the mountains he needed to paint because they moved his heart and made his fingers eager to pick up his brushes.

When he was twenty years old Robert moved out of his father's house and went to live with his mother near Cincinnati, saying "I've come back to be an artist."

Here the countryside called to him but he knew also that he had to learn the technique of painting in oils – and this learning process would take him more than just a few months to develop and master. He studied copies of the world's great artists and practiced his painting skills over and over again. Seeking out valleys and mountains to paint, he tried different brush strokes for different settings, experimenting until he sensed that he had found the result he desired and forcing himself to improve, improve, improve. With every painting he strove to show the magnificence of nature. As a poet might describe a beautiful scene, Duncanson used his brush to display nature's wild beauty. He used large canvases. This appealed to the Victorian tastes of his day. He also painted some still-lifes with flowers.

In 1842, after much struggle, Duncanson had three of his portraits accepted to a famous exhibition in Cincinnati. One thing marred this success. No one in his family was allowed to attend because of their ethnicity.

His mother stated, "I know what they look like … I know that they are there! That's the important thing."

By the time he was twenty-four years old, Robert had made a big enough name for himself that he was asked to illustrate a new book — intended to be just for children — but which turned out to be an international bestseller. The book was Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Robert's time was the era when the ghastly slave trade was on the point of being abolished and he was keenly involved in the abolitionist movement. It is certainly very likely that he donated some of the monies which he earned from the sale of his paintings for the support of the abolition of the slave trade.

People sometimes asked Robert Duncanson, "Who gave you this gift of painting pictures?"

Perhaps he wondered if the ability to draw and paint came from his Scottish Canadian father who remembered his roots in the Old Country? Or his African American mother who had memories of more southern hills?

Duncanson was a rare American artist, being the earliest and most successful African American artist of his time. The Taft Museum near Cincinnati displays several of his most famous works, particularly several very large murals, nine feet by six and one half feet in size.

February is Black History Month.

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