The Last Days of Pompeii: A Perspective on Robert S. Duncanson’s Pompeii

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The Last Days of Pompeii: A Perspective on Robert S. Duncanson’s Pompeii

Among the works featured in the exhibition catalogue for The Last Days of Pompeii exhibition (February 24th- May 19th, 2013) is one by Robert S. Duncanson entitled Pompeii (oil on canvas, 1855). Duncanson (1821-1872), like most artists whose work is featured in the exhibition, also traveled to Europe where he may have observed the impressive ruins first-hand. Exhibition curator and scholar Jon Seydl discusses the work in the catalogue on pages 206-207. Duncanson’s Pompeiian view is rather more evocative than specific; the Corinthian columns of the center foreground seem not to belong to a specific place, but perhaps rather suggest the passage of time. (Others noted that the overall feel of the work was similar to Thomas Cole’s series, The Course of Empire,- where we witness the transformation of a place from wilderness to bustling development to decaying ruin over the course of time.) In Pompeii well-dressed figures gesture to a fragment of fresco in the left foreground; while in the center, a figure with a hat seems to be supervising a figure hoeing the ground. Jon Seydl suggests this may be a subtle reference to slavery; the debate about which would have been quite topical in 1855.

Having first been exposed to Duncanson’s work at the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, the painting’s inclusion in the exhibition inspired me to read more about the artist. The Taft displays the original murals the artist executed for Nicholas Longworth, a lawyer, millionaire landowner, and abolitionist –as The Taft is housed in his original home, once called Belmont. These murals, like the Pompeii painting, are framed in a pseudo-architectural device; are vertical in format, and are painted with tight brushwork, although the inclusion of water–almost always present in his works–seems to soften the landscape. I make note of the more tightly painted Taft murals and the Smithsonian’s Pompeii to contrast with a later work in the permanent collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art: a View of Lake Pepin, Minnesota from 1862. The View of Lake Pepin, Minnesota, was painted on site by the artist on a trip up the Mississippi River at the outset of the Civil War; he was undoubtedly trying to avoid the country’s troubles by traveling north to Canada (and reconnecting with a place he had once called home). It’s a work that takes pure landscape as its subject (rather than depictions of subjects from novels or British poems) and realizes it in a fully luminous, Romantic way. I find its warm hues and soft misty sky quite pleasing; it is a superstar in the American collection, in my opinion.

All of these issues–the subtle reference to slavery in Pompeii, the fact that View of Lake Pepin was painted while the artist travelled north to escape from the country’s Civil War–touch on the way racial issues affected the artist’s work and personal life. Robert S. Duncanson was bi-racial; born of a Scottish father and bi-racial mother, first raised in Canada then moved to Cincinnati to be with his mother. I wondered why water is a presence in all of his paintings which I’ve seen–such as the three referred to here–and what water might symbolically mean to Duncanson. Francis K. Pohl touches on the idea that specific bodies of water were often the boundaries between slavery and freedom for African Americans, such as the Ohio River which separated Cincinnati, Ohio from slave holding Covington, Kentucky and the Great Lakes which separated the United States from Canada. Both would have been travelled by Duncanson. (Framing America, A Social History of American Art by Francis K. Pohl; 2002; p.164.) My own thinking leads me to the concept of water as a purifying element in many cultures;witness its use within the Christian tradition for rites of baptism. Robert S. Duncanson, as a man of mixed race in troubled times–who sought recognition for his work on its merit without other considerations–may have been a man who was drawn to the purifying aspect of water.

-- Alicia Garr