Monday, December 3, 2012

Ohio in Upstate New York: The Geography of a Painting by Robert S. Duncanson

Not a Ohio Landscape
Ohio Landscape, an oil painting (circa 1860-1870) by Robert Seldon Duncanson. Used courtesy of Cowan's Auctions.

This painting, by African American artist Robert Seldon Duncanson, has been referred to as Ohio Landscape. The subject matter appears to be the southern part of the state, where Duncanson worked. His most notable Ohio landscape is Blue Hole, Little Miami River (1851), which I'll address in a future story.

Landscape & Covered Bridge
Landscape & Covered Bridge, an oil painting (1888) by E.A. Sumner. Used courtesy of Cowan's Auctions.

While Duncanson's painting dates to the 1860s, it seems to have been exhibited somewhere in the 1880s or 1890s, as at least two paintings based on it were created during that period. This 1888 canvas by E.A. Sumner copies the original composition almost exactly, save for the omission of the person and boat in the foreground. Ohio River Valley Landscape with Town
Ohio River Valley Landscape with Town, an oil painting (1894) signed "M.P.W." Used courtesy of Garth's Auctions.

This 1894 painting focuses on the centre part of the image, also omitting the person and boat.


Where was this scene?

While, as a work of art, Duncanson's painting may be appreciated without knowing this, and even as it relates to history it can be telling in some ways, there's much that is left unknown by the inability to name the location depicted.

Place matters. It matters both for what a work can tell us about the subject, but also what it can tell us about the artist by his or her choice of that place. We can revisit a location and learn what liberties the artist took and how that location has changed in the intervening years.

In short, I really really wanted to identify the subject of this painting.

I consulted with some colleagues with the hopes that perhaps they might have some idea as to the location. Shirley Wajda came up with a strong argument for Nelsonville, a city in Athens County, Ohio.

Covered Bridge over the Hocking River
Dangerous Bend, Hocking River, Nelsonville, Ohio, a postcard. Used courtesy of Athens County Public Libraries.

Wajda was familar with the area through previous research. She located this postcard, which does appear to show the subject. There's the covered bridge. The curve of the river is just about right, as are the the locations of the buildings and the hills in the background. It was the best possibility that I'd seen - and it satisfied me that we'd identified the site where Robert S. Duncanson made the painting as well as could be, short of actually visiting it.

Early Autumn on Esopus Creek
Early Autumn on Esopus Creek, a chromolithograph (1861-1897) by Alfred Thompson Bricher. Published by L. Prang & Co.. Used courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Print Department.

Time passed. As part of the research for Early Visions of Ohio, 1765-1865, I've been looking at a lot of books (more than 2700 at last count), many that include historic imagery of areas outside Ohio. In one of these titles, I came across this print, Early Autumn on Esopus Creek, a chromolithograph (1861-1897) by Alfred Thompson Bricher.

The most likely Esopus Creek is in Ulster County, New York. The geology of that area is consistent with the subject depicted in the painting.

My initial thought was that Duncanson based his painting on Alfred Thompson Bricher's print. Now I'm no longer so sure.

The two other paintings of the subject have clouds that are consistent with Bricher's print, not Duncanson's painting. This means that the artists likely made their paintings while observing the print. Since they date so close together (1888 and 1894), it suggests to me that the print they were using as a reference had been printed recently.

Based on the style of Duncanson's painting, I'm inclined to believe that he executed that work in the 1860s, as has been suggested, or perhaps a little earlier. This would suggest that Bricher's print was based on Duncanson's painting, not the other way around.

So the painting is of Esopus Creek?

Maybe. Maybe not.

The only landscape of a New York subject that I know of by Duncanson is Niagara Falls (1863). This is at the opposite end of the state from Esopus Creek. That said, Robert S. Duncanson painted at least a couple paintings of New Hampshire, the travels for which would have put him close enough to Esopus Creek.

On the other hand, it's not inconceivable that Alfred Thompson Bricher might have given the subject a title that would sell better - there would be more demand for a New York landscape than an Ohio one. There's a great example of this in a painting by Godfrey Nicholas Frankenstein, of the Great Miami River near Cincinnati. A pair of paintings done after that image are described as being in Connecticut - but that's another story.

It's not clear where this subject was painted. It'll take field work and more research to know for sure either way.

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