'Reading' the Pastoral in the Art of Robert S. Duncanson

Jacquelyn Y. McLendon


Portrait of Albery Whitman from the frontispiece of The Rape of Florida (1884)Born into slavery, Albery Allson Whitman (1851-1901) was acclaimed as the "Poet Laureate of the Negro Race.” He was a manual laborer, school teacher, financial agent, fundraiser and pastor as well as the author of Not a Man, and Yet A Man (1877), The Rape of Florida (1884) and An Idyl of the South: An Epic Poem in Two Parts (1901).

Jamaica Kincaid  (Random House)Jamaica Kincaid is an Antiguan-American novelist, essayist, gardener, and gardening writer.

And, our subject, Robert S. Duncanson Robert S. Duncanson (1821 – December 21, 1872) was a self-taught landscape painter who spent a significant period of his career based in Cincinati, Ohio and traveled to sketch the American landscape. He was born to free parents who had been enslaved in Virginia.

Before I could write a letter, I was trying to scribble down what the birds and bees and cows were saying and what even the dumb rocks were thinking. Nature has ever had a speech for me, and in listening to her voice, lies my satisfaction.  

— Albery Whitman, The Rape of Florida dedicatory address, 1884

I only marveled at the way the garden is for me an exercise in memory, a way  of remembering my own immediate past, a way of getting to a past that is my own (the Caribbean Sea) and the past as it is indirectly related to me (the  conquest of Mexico and its surroundings).

— Jamaica Kincaid, My Garden, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999

Ecocriticism began as the study of the relationship between literature and nature, but scholars across disciplines have come to see the advantage in using an earth-centered approach to examining other kinds of “texts.”  Just as both Whitman and Kincaid, writing a little over a century apart, lay claim to a tangible relationship with the nonhuman environment and its influence on their creativity, Duncanson, too — with brush strokes instead of words — expresses such a relationship with nature and its influence on his landscape paintings.  According to Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson’s account in A History of African-American Artists From 1792 to the Present, “on [Robert S. Duncanson’s] expeditions into the western wilderness, he had encountered natural scenes so beautiful, so peaceful and enchanting, that he had frequently wished to stay there forever.”  Although these three artists represent a small sample, evidence exists that black people’s connection to and concern for the earth is multifaceted and has a long history.  I argue that nature has always influenced the way black people view the world, which makes their underrepresentation in nature anthologies and ecocritical scholarship more than curious.  

Robert S. Duncanson, Blue Hole, Flood Waters, Little Miami River, 1851Examination of Duncanson’s landscapes helps in some small measure to rectify that absence and to challenge, among other misconceptions, the idea that blacks fear the wild and prefer urban to rural space—what some critics have come to call an anti-pastoral tradition in black expressive culture and use as a frame of reference in their critiques. In fact, Duncanson shows a devotion to classical pastoral at the same time that he acknowledges nature’s paradox — its beauty and ability to nurture as well as its ability to destroy, which is quite different from anti-pastoralism.  An ecocritical approach to his work enables a kind of visual literacy, that is, the ability to “read” and make meaning from images, thereby demonstrating  Duncanson’s respect and admiration for nature, his belief in the interconnectedness of all things. This approach also functions to refute, first, the notion of anti-pastoralism, second, that his art is derivative, and, finally, the idea that his art somehow suggests that Duncanson himself wanted to be white simply because of his choice of subject matter. 

 Robert S. Duncanson, 1864 (William Notman). Courtesy McCord MuseumAlthough biographical information about his racial heritage and his very name has been contradictory, whether known as Robert Scott, Robert Seldon, or Robert Stuart Duncanson, the son of an interracial union or the son of the African American couple, John Dean and Lucy Duncanson,1 all accounts report that he was among the few African Americans who made a career as an artist during the 19th century, and by the 1860s the American press proclaimed him “the best landscape painter in the west.”  

At this time the landscape was a popular subject for American artists and, as Sharon F. Patton observes, "nature had become a metaphor for America."  However, some critics feel Duncanson should have painted not simply as an American but as a black person. For instance, David Lubin, in the “Reconstructing Duncanson” chapter of Picturing a Nation, says that “[t]here seems to be in his art a curious sort of denial, a striking absence of blackness or, should we say, brownness” because “at some level and in some manner he wished to pass for white.”              

This article focuses on three of Duncanson’s paintings — The Garden of Eden (1852), Uncle Tom and Little Eva (1853), and Valley Pasture (1857) — as representative of his racial identification and aesthetics.

In a letter denying his son Reuben’s accusation that he was passing for white, which Duncanson called “abusive language,” he wrote, “I have no color [read race] on the brain all I have on the brain is paint”. . . .I care not for color. ‘Love is my principal, order is the basis, progress is the end.’” 

Art historian Joseph D. Ketner cites this statement found on the wall of Duncanson’s Cincinnati studio as a reflection of his aesthetic sensibility:  “The mere imitation of the form and colors of nature is not art, however perfect the resemblance. True art is the development of the sentiments and principles of the human soul—natural objects being the medium of illustration.”

 Robert S. Duncanson, The Garden of Eden, 1852 Collection of the High MuseumKetner acknowledges The Garden of Eden as “Duncanson’s first ambitious historical painting” and, rightly, that it is copied after Thomas Cole’s painting whose “vision of Eden was prompted by John Milton’s Paradise Lost.” Yet, as close as they appear to be in content, there are noticeable and important differences in the two paintings.  Cole’s suggests something more of prelapsarian Eden, which a contrast to his Expulsion from the Garden of Eden bears out.  On the other hand, Duncanson’s painting suggests a postlapsarian scene, an Eden as it existed after “man’s first disobedience” (PL I:1). The difference is the focus of light in each painting.  

Thomas Cole, The Garden of Eden, 1828Cole’s garden is filled with light that directs the eye toward Adam and Eve who, even as miniscule as they are, seem to be still completely unclothed, meaning they have not yet eaten of the “fallacious fruit”  that caused them to “know/Both good and evil, good lost and evil got” (XI:1046, 1071-72).   Duncanson’s garden is nearly all dark recalling Adam’s words in Milton’s epic:

. . . . O might I here

In solitude live savage, in some glade

Obscured, where highest woods impenetrable

To Star or sunlight, spread their umbrage broad,

And brown as evening: cover me ye pines,

Ye cedars, with innumerable boughs

Hide me, where I may never see them more (IX:1084-1090).

Adam and Eve are the tiny figures at the bottom left of this detail of Duncanson's Garden of EdenIndeed, Adam and Eve are hidden in darkness in Duncanson’s version.  Although not reflected in the garden, bright light fills the heavens, analogous to both the “happy realms of light” lost to Satan and his followers and the “Insufferably bright” light that exposes Adam and Eve’s “guilty shame” (PL I:85, XI:1058, 1084).  

Clearly, Duncanson approaches the garden with a perspective different from Cole’s, and Ketner argues that this and other “paintings not only conveyed conventional American attitudes toward the primeval garden of their country but also signified Duncanson’s search for the promised land of slave songs” (44).  Yet, the difference in perspective is less likely because of their racial differences and more likely because of each artist’s interpretation of Milton’s great work. Although through flashbacks, Milton relates the story of Adam and Eve before the Fall, his epic really takes place afterward, as it must.  Color, or the darkness in Duncanson’s version, scale or the imperceptible presence of the first couple, and focus or the brilliance of the heavens in stark contrast to the garden itself might be open to an interpretation based on the artist’s racial identity but would be valid only if that identity is known.

 Robert S. Duncanson. Uncle Tom and Little Eva, oil on Canvas, 1853. Collection Detroit Institute of ArtOn the other hand, a more “racialized” interpretation of Uncle Tom and Little Eva may be made because the subject calls for it (regardless of the artist’s racial identity) and based on a comparison of Duncanson’s painting to 19th century paintings by white artists that depict blacks and whites together.  It is important to first note that some critics have interpreted Duncanson’s painting less than favorably.  For example, Frances Pohl argues that it “closely follows” Stowe’s text and thus “maintains [her] patronizing attitude toward Tom.”  Patton states that it “drips with romantic sentimentalism,” indicating her negative attitude toward the genre. Ketner’s interpretation is more positive, giving Duncanson credit for “publicly announc[ing] his abolitionist sentiments.”  But the comparisons Ketner makes to the illustrations in the original edition of the novel are inaccurate.  He claims that “[t]he positioning of the figures and even the hat, turned upright at Uncle Tom’s side, are precisely the same as in Duncanson’s painting.” An examination of Hammatt Billings’ illustration from the original edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin reveals distinct differences: 

Little Eva and Uncle Tom in Hamatt Billing's illustration for the first edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin In her essay in The Journal of American Culture, Morgan states that “[i]n studying this illustration, I have wondered if Billings’s odd couple became popular precisely because it was sexually charged, implicitly courting the unmentionable. . . .”  In Duncanson’s version, the fact that he foregrounds Uncle Tom functions to revise rather than mimic Stowe’s various characterizations and Billings’s illustrations. The two are not seated in so “cozy” a fashion as in the Billings illustration.  Further, the Bible that Eva holds in her lap in the Billings drawing is absent, undermining the idea that Eva is the teacher and, therefore, that “authority accrues to whiteness.” Finally, an early reviewer of Duncanson’s painting described Tom’s facial expression as stupid; yet his face is barely visible, in stark contrast to the menacing expression on Billings’s Tom.  Indeed, the only similarity is the upturned hat on the ground.  Contrary to Stowe’s narrative moments, no “dusky cotton-bale” is in sight. Nor is Tom in any subservient position for Eva to “look[ ] down upon him” as the novel’s narrative describes (Chapter 14). Both individuals are fully clothed in an openly visible outdoor space, providing an antithesis to the type of 18th and 19th century European visual art in which, as Sander Gilman argues compellingly, “one of the black servant’s central functions. . .was to sexualize the society in which he or she is found.”  The setting also does not stray too far from Duncanson’s clearly spiritual rendering of nature, especially in the brilliance of the sky.

Patton contends that the “aesthetic softening—the daintiness of the foliage, rosy-pink skies, and pious gesture—may be construed as a feminization of art.” I argue that these very attributes depict the innocence of the situation, of Eva, and most important, of Tom. While achieving the objective of the abolitionist who commissioned the painting — "to kindle support for abolition" — Duncanson’s painting also functions to dispel the myth of over-sexualized blacks that dominated the 18th and 19th century paintings Gilman describes.  

In Uncle Tom and Little Eva, Stowe’s characters take center stage, which is uncharacteristic of Duncanson’s other landscapes.  Even so, a comparison with the Billings drawing reveals another subversion on Duncanson’s part: his characters are not larger than their natural surroundings, indicating that nature is still of the utmost importance to him.  Lubin (who said Duncanson wanted to be white) also said that his art was “practically identical to that of his contemporaries and in that regard . . . unexceptional.”  The only way Lubin seems able to find anything “exceptional” in Duncanson’s work is through an ad hominem approach: interpretations based on Lubin’s belief that any difference in his paintings from those of his white contemporaries stemmed from “the ways in which he was different from them [Lubin’s emphasis], his root culture different from theirs.” Notwithstanding Duncanson’s earned reputation as “the best landscape painter in the west,” variations in style, even subtle ones, as shown in the comparisons between Duncanson’s and Cole’s gardens or Duncanson’s and Billings’s Uncle Tom characterizations become apparent through visual literacy, that is, reading the image and not the man. 

Rpbert S. Duncanson, Valley PastureValley Pasture is not the most famous of Duncanson’s landscapes but it serves the purpose of showing his devotion to classical pastoral, his unabashed longing to remain—even metaphorically—in those natural settings he had visited on his travels.  Classical pastoral is an artistic composition dealing with a simple, idealized rural life, creating a sense of peace, beauty, and uncorrupted existence. Ketner describes his paintings as emblematic of his longing for the promised land.  His paintings do project a deep spirituality, but I argue that the longing—idyllic as it may be—is for peace and solitude on earth.  

Valley Pasture portrays a tranquil setting with a flock of sheep and a few cows nestled in untamed, lush flora, grazing near a calm—"shallow" perhaps?—river amid ranges of hills and mountains that recall the English poet Marlowe’s idyllic scene in “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love” or the ”fertile borders, near the stream" that form the enslaved poet George Moses Horton’s "paradise" in “On Summer.” In both Marlowe’s and Horton’s poems, it is an earthly paradise the speakers describe.  Although there is no formal acknowledgment of these poems as there is with The Land of the Lotus Eaters, based on Tennyson’s famous poem, Duncanson clearly textualizes, indeed intertextualizes, classical literary pastoral imagery in his painting.  His paintings are intertextual in that some of them connect implicitly and explicitly to written works of art.  He textualizes nature by rendering in concrete and “readable” detail his artistic imagination, his own interpretation of and interconnectedness with the world around him through techniques such as scale, color, space, and emphasis. 

In Valley Pasture he depicts the natural setting on a larger scale than the barely perceptible humans and animals, a noticeable feature in many of his landscapes—Landscape with Sheep, Landscape with Shepherd, Man Fishing, for example—signifying the importance he places on nature generally and the pastoral more specifically.  At times, humans become the focus as in Man Fishing, a painting that depicts human harmony with nature.  In each instance, though, Duncanson’s techniques permit a glimpse into his own inner self.

Ketner writes that a “tragic mental disorder” whose cause resulted from lead poisoning, “a professional hazard ... associated with painters’ maladies” plagued Duncanson’s final years. Two paintings that he created in the year before his death, Sunset on the New England Coast and A Storm off the Irish Coast, might indeed be revelations of his individual psychomachia, an inner struggle or conflict of the soul. After all, in the oft-quoted words attributed to Aristotle “the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”

Jacquelyn Y. McLendon, Ph.D., is a professor emerita of English at the College of William and Mary. 


1. Ketner has corrected many of the errors concerning Duncanson’s parentage, concluding that he was not the son of a white Canadian man of Scottish descent and an African American woman but the son of African Americans John Dean and Lucy Duncanson.  With the exception of the middle name Seldon that he attributes to the artist, his biography comes closest to the family’s genealogical information on Ancestry.com, verified by researcher Lisa Schumann of the College Hill Historical Society.

Works Cited

Beardon, Romare and Harry Henderson. A History of African-American Artists from 1792 to the Present. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993. 

Duncanson, Robert S. Letter to Reuben Duncanson, dated June 29, 1871, quoted in Katz, Wendy L. “Robert S. Duncanson, Race, and Auguste Comte’s Positivism in Cincinnati.” American Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1, 2014, pp. 79-115. Print

Gilman, Sander. “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth Century Art, Medicine, and Literature. Critical Inquiry Vol. 2, No. 1, 1985, pp. 204-242. Print

Ketner, Joseph D. The Emergence of the African-American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson, 1821-1872. Columbia, Missouri: U of Missouri P, 1993. 

Lubin, David M. “Reconstructing Duncanson,” in Picturing a Nation: Art and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century America. New Haven: Yale UP, 1994. 

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Scott Elledge, Ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Morgan, Jo-Ann. “Uncle Tom and Eva St. Clare—Reproduction as Legacy.” Journal of American Culture 27 (March 2004).

Patton, Sharon F. African-American Art. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. UVA Library, Electronic Text Center.