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Robert Scott Duncanson (1821 - 1872)

Lot 52: Robert Scott Duncanson (1821-1872)


May 22, 2003
New York, NY, US

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The Garden of Eden signed and dated 'R.S. Duncanson 1852' (lower left) oil on canvas 321/2 x 48 in. (82.6 x 123.2 cm.) LITERATURE J.D. Ketner, The Emergence of the African-American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson, 1821-1872, Columbia, Missouri, 1993, p. 43, illustrated EXHIBITION Cincinnati, Ohio, Art Union of Cincinnati, 1852 NOTES One of America's leading African-American artists, Robert Scott Duncanson derived his subjects from diverse sources, many literary, others biblical and still others inspired by his trips abroad, and most notably to Europe. The Garden of Eden depicts an expansive landscape in a verdant tropical setting. A stream flows in the foreground and in its waters can be seen giant gem-like crystals and flower blossoms. The central portion of the landscape includes towering palms and a profusion of flowers, just visible at the edge of a grassy expanse, the figures of Adam and Eve. In the distance, the artist includes a picturesque waterfall and a soaring peak which complete his conception of paradise as a picturesque and fantastic scene. The painting is the smaller of two versions based on an earlier conception of the same subject, Thomas Cole's The Garden of Eden of 1827 to 1828 (Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas), although the two works differ in some compositional elements and details. Cole's work was inspired by Milton's Paradise Lost, a book which had found renewed popularity in the early nineteenth century. Duncanson's undertaking to create his own version of the subject amounted to his most ambitious project to date, one which his understudy, Junius Sloan, remarked upon: "Duncanson is still driving away making ready for his 'Eden'--of which you may have heard him speak. I scarcely need tell you more, at present-for to give you a full idea would be impossible, to obtain it you must sit by and listen to his works and watch his gestures, and cath [sic] the expression in his face." (J.D. Ketner, The Emergence of the African-American Artist, Robert S. Duncanson, 1821-1872, Columbia, Missouri, 1993, p. 42) The art historian Joseph Ketner writes at length on the creation of Duncanson's Garden of Eden and its subsequent celebrated reception: "...the artist worked on the painting throughout the spring of 1852 with the intention of touring it around the Midwest during the summer. The finished canvas was an immense five by seven feet, larger than Cole's, filled with luxuriant gardens full of exotic trees and richly colored flowers that framed a view of the pyramidal Mount of God. The gates of paradise stand in the middle ground guarded by the angel Gabriel, symbolized by the star between the pillars. This conception of paradise closely paralleled the description by Milton in Paradise Lost of a place dominated by 'a rock of alabaster, piled up in the clouds', with a 'craggy cliff' for a profile. In June 1852, the press previewed the painting in Duncanson's studio before its touring exhibition. The Gazette reported to its readers that Garden of Eden was "beautiful and inspiring, shows careful study, and is far in advance of former works.'" ( The Emergence of the African-American Artist, Robert S. Duncanson, 1821-1872, p. 43) Another reviewer commented on the broader ideals represented by Duncanson's masterwork: "...the poet and the painter seek to embody their idea of the great, the good, and the beautiful, and this is the mission of the true artist...One may not look upon the artist's idea of a perfect earth--Eden, the beautiful home of the perfect man--without higher aspirations for the future, and the restoration of the pristine purity of life and beauty of earth, which is his birthright." As noted by Ketner, "implied in the latter comment is the millennialist association between the American wilderness and a spiritual paradise...America had the potential to re-create the biblical paradise on earth and avoid the fate of previous decadent civilizations. Thus, the exotic semitropical Eden depicted in Duncanson's painting is emblematic of America as the primitive wilderness garden, 'a perfect earth'." Upon its inaugural exhibition in Pittsburgh, the painting received a positive reception, including a comment by a critic who lauded its genius. The painting also came to represent a storied moment in the abolitionist movement. "In concert with the Pittsburgh exhibition," writes Ketner, "Duncanson orchestrated a ceremonious presentation of the original Garden of Eden (the present work) to the Reverend Charles Avery as a symbol of his appreciation for the Reverend's efforts on behalf of African-Americans. Several abolitionist periodicals realized the publicity potential of this presentation and ran the story. Frederick Douglass' Paper capitalized on the moment in a lengthy notice to its readers under the title 'a Token of Gratitude.' The journal reported that at the close of the exhibition Duncanson, 'a talented young gentleman of color,' offered The Garden of Eden to Avery 'as a testimonial of respect and gratitude, for his munificent friendship towards the colored people of Pittsburgh and Allegheny.' According to the journal, 'Mr. Avery was taken quite by surprise, and seemed for a few moments at a loss what to say, but after a slight demur, he accepted it warmly and expressed his acknowledgments for the compliment.' The article concluded with the question, 'Who shall answer to this age and to posterity for the sin and shame of crushing a race, thus gifted with the power of genius, the delicacy of sentiment and the capacity for sublime moral development, of which this one act proves them capable:' In Duncanson's art and in his noble gesture, the abolitionist journalists discovered an exemplar of African-Americans' intellectual and cultural capabilities." ( The Emergence of the African-American Artist, Robert S. DUncanson, 1821-1872, pp. 43-45). Duncanson painted the present work shortly after his triumph in Pittsburgh. In the fall of 1852, he exhibited this version at the Art Union of Cincinnati where The Garden of Eden was highly praised and imediately recognized as Duncanson's 'chef d'oeuvre', raising his status among the landscape painters of Cincinnati. An artistic and critical success, The Garden of Eden marked a turning point in the artist's acclaim, and remains one of his greatest realizations of the ideal landscape in his art.

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