A dream of Italy: Black artists and travel in the nineteenth century

Robert S. Duncanson, A Dream of Italy, 1865, oil on canvas, 52.4 x 88.9 cm (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Robert S. Duncanson, A Dream of Italy, 1865, oil on canvas, 52.4 x 88.9 cm (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Soft pink light. A glassy sea. Forgotten ruins. In his painting A Dream of Italy, Robert S. Duncanson transports his audience to an imaginary landscape infused with references to classical antiquity. This large painting takes the viewer through a series of scenes that moves from the foreground towards the horizon in the background.

Detail, Robert S. Duncanson, A Dream of Italy, 1865, oil on canvas, 52.4 x 88.9 cm (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Detail, Robert S. Duncanson, A Dream of Italy, 1865, oil on canvas, 52.4 x 88.9 cm (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Detail, Robert S. Duncanson, A Dream of Italy, 1865, oil on canvas, 52.4 x 88.9 cm (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Detail, Robert S. Duncanson, A Dream of Italy, 1865, oil on canvas, 52.4 x 88.9 cm (Birmingham Museum of Art)

We are first invited into the painting with a scene of two figures on a circular platform that may have once been the foundation of a classical temple. These figures look out over a small body of water towards a group of herders and their goats, a human-animal grouping that was often used to symbolize pastoral simplicity and harmony in landscape paintings.

We then continue deeper into the painting via a cleared path on the right that winds through the middle ground of the painting and leads to a town on a hilltop, with some buildings in ruin. A large, calm body of water occupies the center of the painting and is framed on either side by what appear to be ancient ruins.

Detail, Robert S. Duncanson, A Dream of Italy, 1865, oil on canvas, 52.4 x 88.9 cm (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Detail, Robert S. Duncanson, A Dream of Italy, 1865, oil on canvas, 52.4 x 88.9 cm (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Small boats glide on the reflective surface of water. Our view of the boats and the people who tend them (perhaps hauling in the day’s catch of fish), is framed by clumps of trees and sloping hills, leading our eyes towards more architectural structures, including the crumbling walls of a fortress or city. Finally, as we look across the horizon towards the soft, rosy hues of the sunset, we reach a grouping of buildings on the furthest shoreline—perhaps the remains of a former town or city—above which a hazy range of snow capped mountains rises, shimmering in the distance.

Although the American artist Robert S. Duncanson visited Italy in 1853, he produced this painting more than a decade later while living in Canada. He moved to Montreal in 1863 while the United States was embroiled in the Civil War and where he found greater acceptance as an artist of color. In this work he creates an imagined and idealized landscape, transporting the viewer across time and space. Rather than a scene that depicts a specific place in Italy, this painting seems to be composed of features, particularly architectural, that he might have witnessed at the various sites he visited (including the cities of Rome and Naples where archaeological excavations were taking place) as he traveled through the country. Composed of spaces for reverie alongside crumbling reminders of a former empire, this is a painting infused with nostalgia, both for the subjects within the painting and for viewers alike. It is likely that Duncanson made this painting for a patron who had either traveled to Italy or wanted to imagine they had. In presenting North American audiences with an idyllic scene popularized by the European Grand Tour, what else is Duncanson expressing in this dreamscape?

William Notman, Robert S. Duncanson, 1864, albumen print (McCord Stewart Museum)

William Notman, Robert S. Duncanson, 1864, albumen print (McCord Stewart Museum)

Robert Duncanson: A Black American on the Grand Tour

Robert Seldon Duncanson was an African American artist, who spent the majority of his career in Cincinnati, Ohio, a city with its own allusions to classical antiquity. Cincinnati was often described as “the Athens of the West,” a reference to the ancient Greek city state of Athens that became a democracy beginning in the late 6th century B.C.E. Athens also became one of the wealthiest ancient Greek cities and made large investments in public art and architecture. In its own right, Cincinnati became an important center of refinement in the United States thanks to its range of educational, literary, and cultural institutions. Cincinnati also housed one of the largest communities of free persons of color in the United States.

Born as a free man in upstate New York, Duncanson started his artistic career as a house painter in Michigan before moving to Cincinnati to pursue a career as an artist. Here, he seems to have been well supported by the African American community and his connection with white abolitionists. It was through this network of support that Duncanson made his first trip to Europe in 1853. Duncanson’s travels to Europe followed that of other artists of color such as Robert Douglass Jr. and Michel-Jean Cazabon, and Black intellectuals and writers, such as Frederick Douglass. Another of Duncanson’s compatriots, Edmonia Lewis, made a similar trip to Europe but remained in residence in Italy throughout her life.

Historically the Grand Tour was made by young, upper-class European men to gain exposure to the art and culture of classical antiquity and the Italian Renaissance as part of their gentlemanly cultivation. For artists from the United States, such travel to Europe became a crucial part of one’s artistic education. It gave them the opportunity to see important artworks in person and provided opportunities for them to compare their abilities to what was considered the best and highest examples of European art. For Duncanson and other artists of color in the nineteenth century, their time spent abroad also afforded them some measure of respite from the racial discrimination they faced in the United States.

A Dream of Italy showcases at least some of what Duncanson absorbed while on his tour in Europe, including his interest and his proficiency in landscape painting. It is likely he would have seen the work of British landscape painters such as J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, along with French proponents of the genre such as Claude Lorrain and Nicholas Poussin, whom he greatly admired. In letters, Duncanson described being invigorated by what he saw and energized to know that his work compared favorably with the European artists he viewed. He wrote:

English landscapes were better than any in Europe, and the English are great in water color while the French are better historical painters than the English…. My trip to Europe has to some extent enabled me to judge of my own talent. Of all the landscapes I saw in Europe (and I saw thousands) I do not feel discouraged. [1]

A Dream of Italy showcases Duncanson’s strength as a landscape painter. His compositional organization and lighting would have been recognized by nineteenth-century audiences as referencing the work of earlier French artists (in particular Lorrain and Poussin). Like these artists he wanted to use the emotional potential of color to produce complex landscapes that suggested the passage of time. And like these artists, he also incorporates references to ancient Greece and Rome—two Mediterranean civilizations that were often conflated to signify an imagined past. Following the conventions of academic landscape painting, Duncanson creates an ideal landscape in which he incorporates figures and structures associated with an Arcadian utopia. In moving from a shadowed foreground to a lighter background and including references to both the past and the present, viewers move through the painting towards something brighter in the distance, and perhaps in the future.

A Dream of Italy is a painting that also reminds us just how important international travel was for Black artists and intellectuals in the nineteenth century. The journey across the Atlantic offered opportunities they often could not access, or access in the same way, as their white colleagues in the United States. For example, despite garnering acclaim both domestically and abroad, Duncanson was still barred from participating in many American expositions because he was a Black man. While racism was also embedded in European social structures, artists like Duncanson were less restricted in their ability to travel and engage with different audiences and patrons while living and working abroad.

An Italian landscape in the 19th-Century United States

During his lifetime, Duncanson was both critically and commercially successful, exhibiting his works in both Europe and North America and commanding high prices for his work, as this painting likely did, owing to its large size and high degree of finish. In 1861, four years prior to the completion of A Dream of Italy, the Daily Cincinatti Gazette had described Duncanson as “the greatest landscape painter in the West.” [2]

In the nineteenth-century United States, landscape painting could also have significant political importance, conveying specific ideas about how the young nation would develop and what its future identity would be. One of the country’s best known landscape painters, Thomas Cole, frequently used his landscape representations as forms of political commentary. Duncanson greatly admired Cole, and since Duncanson was self-taught and did not attend art school, he learned Cole’s landscape technique by copying his works.

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire (The Savage State; The Arcadian or Pastoral State; The Consummation of Empire; Destruction; Desolation), oil on canvas, c. 1834-36 (New York Historical Society)

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire (The Savage State; The Arcadian or Pastoral State; The Consummation of Empire; Destruction; Desolation), oil on canvas, c. 1834–36 (New York Historical Society)

Duncanson would no doubt have been aware of Cole’s series of paintings The Course of Empire. Here Cole depicts five landscapes that charted the rise and fall of an unnamed civilization. The canvases move from a primordial state— where the natural landscape dominates the human presence and its man-made structures—through various states of human-nature interaction and end with destruction and the landscape returning to wilderness. Cole turns to classical architecture to depict the empire’s heady rise, perhaps an allusion to ancient Rome’s shift from a republic to an empire, offering a correlation with the United States at a time when optimism about its future was high. Cole’s paintings then offer a cautionary tale about the disastrous consequences of empire building (a reference to the potential dangers of imperial hubris and the expansion of the United States). The canvases have often been read as a critique of the nation’s unrelenting industrialization and urbanization and a warning about their destructive effects on the environment. They may also be a critique of the political changes enacted by President Andrew Jackson, whose government gradually expanded voting rights to all white men (rather than only those who owned property), but did nothing to expand rights to African or Native Americans, or women. Instead, Jackson oversaw the forced removal of Indigenous people from their land in the southeastern United States in an effort to increase land availability for white slave owners, through a law passed by Congress in 1830 known as “The Indian Removal Act.”

Like Cole, Robert Duncanson was an artist who wanted to create landscapes that could convey moral messages. His inclusion of classical features and their evocation of the past certainly fits within the classical landscape tradition. But A Dream of Italy also reveals his awareness of landscape painting as a form of political critique in the United States, in particular, the effects of slavery and racial discrimination on the social formation of the nation. By evoking this history of antiquity Duncanson seems to invite viewers to find a potential connection between the United States, democratic Athens, and Republican Rome. Both cultures relied on slavery and yet were seen as models, politically and artistically, for the United States.

A Dream for Equality?

As a Black artist, even though he was born as a free person of color, Duncanson’s legal position in the United States was still informed by the institution of slavery. The US Constitution authorized that all people born in the country should be considered citizens (except First Nations communities). However in the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford decision the United States Supreme court ruled that African Americans were legally classified as a separate class of people, and thus were not legally citizens. This ruling was based on the false belief that people with Black skin were inferior. [3] Excluded from full citizenship, Black artists like Duncanson were then also excluded from conversations about the nation’s future. Concretely, this meant that artists like Duncanson had limited opportunities to pursue art education and limited exposure to patrons because they did not have the same freedoms within the United States as their white counterparts did.

Duncanson first sketched the scenes he incorporated into this painting in the 1850s, when slavery was legal in the United States. Years later, he painted the canvas in Canada, where he had moved specifically to avoid the political and social turmoil brewing in the United States. A Dream of Italy was finished in 1865, the same year the American Civil War ended. This war was fought between the United States army (the army of the northern states) and the Southern confederacy (states that had seceded from the nation). The central cause of the war and the escalating tensions that led to it was slavery. Southern states had seceded to protect their slave-holding interests, while political leaders based in the northern states fought initially to restrict slavery’s expansion into the newly admitted free territories (and states) in the west. Eventually, after the war concluded, and after much activism by Black communities, slavery was abolished across the nation with the passage of the 13th Amendment in December of 1865. However, it would be another three years before citizenship rights were guaranteed to all Americans, including the formerly enslaved, with the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868.

Created as the Civil War was coming to an end but at a time when all Americans were not yet equal citizens, this painting invokes an idealized landscape, with references to both past and present, to point viewers towards a brighter future. A Dream of Italy, with all its gestures to the landscape conventions of its time, also remains ethereal and dream-like—a place where viewers might project their own ideals or ideas about an idyllic future, or perhaps simply to find refuge from their present time and place. Here then, perhaps Duncanson recreates his own “dream” of a nation where viewing the past might be conceived as the means of reimagining, even dreaming of, a potential new future.

[1] Robert Scott Duncanson, Letter from Duncanson to Junius R. Sloan, 22 Jan. 1854 (Platt R. Spencer Collection, Newberry Library, Chicago, Ill.)

[2] Daily Cincinnati Gazette, May 1861.

[3] Scientists used methods such as the measurement of human skulls to demonstrate how exterior anatomical variations supposedly reflected unchangeable biological differences that they used to justify racism, slavery, and to argue that white people were superior to Black communities.

Thomas Ball, Freedmen’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln, 1876, Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C. (photo: Renee Ater)

Additional resources

Biography of Robert S. Duncanson from the Smithsonian American Art Museum

1857 Dred Scott v Sanford decision

Anna Arabindan-Kesson, “Dreams of Italy”

Dr. Kimberly Kutz Elliott, “The Missouri Compromise and the dangerous precedent of appeasement”

Cite this page as: Dr. Anna Arabindan-Kesson, "A dream of Italy: Black artists and travel in the nineteenth century," in Smarthistory, March 15, 2023, accessed May 23, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/black-artists-travel-19c/.