At a historical inflection point during the American Civil War, it was uncertain what Canada would become… would we become an independent republic, or a part of Lincoln’s America or would we remain a Northern anti-American confederacy under British control? (Britain’s other confederacy did fail in 1865 after all).
Nowhere was this battle over our identity expressed more clearly than in our national arts. It is here that one Robert Duncanson (1821-1871) enters the stage. Living in Montreal during the height of the Civil War from 1863-1865, Duncanson had already become world renowned as the leading figure of the Hudson River School and greatest African American painter in his time. Born of a Scottish father and African american mother, Duncanson was recruited to the Hudson River school by William Sonntag in the 1850’s in Cincinnati where they shared adjacent studios. He quickly took up his role in the combat against the institution of slavery with the brush and poetry working closely with abolitionist networks throughout America, donating many of his works for the cause of freedom and polemicizing against slavery through his poetic subject matter, as evidenced in his Land of the Lotus Eaters which featured a multi-layered attack upon the oligarchical worldview unveiled in Pierre Beaudry’s essay “Robert Duncanson and the Paradisiacal Paradox“.
While in Canada, Duncanson literally shaped an incredibly influential network of painters such as Charles Way, John Fraser, Allan Edson and Otto Jacobi among others, who resonated powerfully to the Hudson River school method of communicating the Divine in both man and nature. His philosophy was expressed in his own words when he said: “Mark what I say here in black and white. I have no color in the brain- all I have on the brain is paint… I care not for color: Love is my principle, order is the basis, progress is the end”.
Defining his understanding of the highest purpose of art, Duncanson hung a note on his studio door stating “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.”
It took many years of cultural warfare for the British imperialists to corrupt Canadian art, derailing its Promethean evolution towards a slow, deconstructing school of modernism- all of which was made possible by the spread of the luminist/romantic movement during the end of the 19th century. This 19th century infusion of sensualism then paved the way for the rise of the “Emily Carr and the Group of 7” as a new unassailable standard bearer of mystical nature worship during the early of the 20th century. Contrary to popular belief, this turning away from the Hudson River School tradition was never an organic evolution of Canadian aesthetics but rather a conscious suffocation of a Promethean fire that was emerging within the soul of a people who were destined to be more than the British Monarchy had in mind.
If a principled school of painting can arise in Canada once again, re-discovering this forgotten tradition will be vital… I have in this spirit, here featured a small array of Duncanson’s paintings as well as those of his direct students and other forgotten painters in Canada who were influenced by the Hudson River School as well as the Thomas Eakins school at the end of the 19th century. Many of their most powerful paintings, and those of Duncan’s, it must be noted were systematically buried by the oligarchy whose simple technique in those days before digital reproductions, was to purchase republican-spirited works en masse, and then bury them from public viewing indefinitely. It is for this reason that a figure as important as Robert Duncanson, and his co-thinkers could remain forgotten for so long.
Enjoy some beautiful paintings and be sure to check out Pierre Beaudry’s pioneering work on the Hudson River School in his book following this link.