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Robert Scott Duncanson Painting, "The Quarry," Is Gift to Virginia Museum of Fine Arts


(above: Robert Scott Duncanson's "The Quarry," circa 1855-63, has been given to VMFA by The Council in commemoration of its 50th anniversary of service to the museum. (Photo by Katherine Wetzel, © 2006 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)


"The Quarry," an oil on canvas by 19th-century African-American artist Robert Scott Duncanson (1821-1872), was given in May 2006 to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Council, a volunteer support group that is celebrating its 50th anniversary of service to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

"The Council has selected a gift that is powerful in both imagery and significance," says Dr. Elizabeth O'Leary, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts's associate curator of American arts.

O'Leary also says Duncanson is consistently cited today as one of the five most outstanding black artists practicing in America during the 1800s. (The others cited most often are Joshua Johnson, Edward Bannister, Edmonia Lewis and Henry Ossawa Tanner. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts owns Tanner's 1910 painting "Christ and His Disciples on the Sea of Galilee.") "The Quarry" depicts a formidable rock formation that "seems to defy assaults from nature and man," O'Leary says. The painting measures 14 1/2 by 22 5/8 inches and is dated about 1855-63.

Duncanson's story is also one of endurance, as a free black man who established an international reputation during the tumultuous years surrounding the Civil War, according to O'Leary.

His grandfather and mother were once enslaved in Virginia, but Duncanson himself "transcended the limitations of race," she says.

There are many gaps in the family's story, O'Leary says, but recent scholarship has determined that the artist's grandfather was emancipated by his Virginia owner, apparently just after the Revolutionary War. Census records reveal that the grandfather and his family eventually made their way to New York State where the artist's father married a Virginia-born woman. Duncanson was born in New York in 1821.

As a teenager, Duncanson opened a house-painting and decorating business. By the late 1840s, he had moved to a small town near Cincinnati where he began to paint portraits and still-lifes on commission. William Sonntag and Worthington Whittredge, who were leading Ohio Valley landscapists, befriended Duncanson and shared their knowledge and experience with him.

"Through determination and perseverance -- and with funding for European study from Cincinnati philanthropist and abolitionist Nicholas Longworth -- Duncanson became a highly skilled and prolific painter," O'Leary says.

In the painting now acquired by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the towering, craggy bluff to the right of the canvas looms above a waterfall and pond and is balanced visually by a gnarled tree on the left. In the distance is a village and mountains, while haystacks dot pasturelands in the middle distance and a plume of smoke suggests a factory or mill.

"Painted in a romantic era when landscape often carried metaphoric narrative, the image easily summons national and religious associations," O'Leary says.

Pam Palmore, president of The Council, says, "Our group is delighted to present this gift of an outstanding landscape by Robert Scott Duncanson and to be able to play a significant role in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts's efforts to provide a more complete and compelling story of our nation's artistic history before the 20th century."

The Council of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was organized in 1955 to provide volunteer opportunities for those interested in supporting the museum. The group began with 49 members and today boasts more than 650. The Council operates the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Shop as well as kiosk shops associated with special exhibitions. Council members develop and implement fundraising events that benefit the museum. They provide volunteer assistance in many areas of the museum's operations, including the docent program, the lobby information desk, the library and other departments.


Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy Robert S. Duncanson: Small Paintings from Ohio Collections (7/16/04)

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