The National Gallery of Art has acquired one of fewer than a dozen known still lifes painted in the late 1840s by African American artist Robert Seldon Duncanson (1821–1872). Classically composed, Still Life with Fruit and Nuts (1848) depicts fruit arranged in a tabletop pyramid in which the smooth surfaces of beautifully rendered fruit contrast with textured nutshells. The acquisition was made possible with funds from Ann and Mark Kington/The Kington Foundation and the Avalon Fund.
Measuring just 12 x 16 inches, Still Life with Fruit and Nuts is on view in an intimate room (Gallery M-69A) of the American collection alongside other still-life works by such American artists as Joseph Decker, William Michael Harnett, Martin Johnson Heade, James Peale, Raphaelle Peale, and John Frederick Peto. Like Duncanson’s other still lifes, it is spare and meticulously painted, reflecting the tradition of American still-life painting initiated by Charles Willson Peale and his gifted children—particularly Raphaelle and Rembrandt Peale.
Self-taught and living in Cincinnati when he created his still-life paintings, Duncanson exhibited several of them at the annual Michigan State Fair. During one such exhibition, a critic for the Detroit Free Press wrote, “the paintings of fruit, etc. by Duncanson are beautiful, and as they deserve, have elicited universal admiration.” The artist’s turn from still-life subjects to landscapes conveying religious and moral messages may have been inspired by the exhibition in Cincinnati of Thomas Cole’s celebrated series The Voyage of Life (1842). Cole’s allegorical paintings were purchased by a private collector in Cincinnati and remained in the city until acquired by the National Gallery of Art in 1971. Exposure to Cole’s paintings marked a turning point in Duncanson’s career. Soon he began creating landscapes that incorporated signature elements from Cole and often carried moral messages. Visitors can also see The Voyage of Life in the American galleries, not far from Duncanson’s painting.
Following the outbreak of the Civil War, Duncanson traveled to Canada, where he remained until departing for Europe in 1865. Often described as the first African American artist to achieve an international reputation, Duncanson enjoyed considerable success exhibiting his landscapes abroad. His achievement as a still-life painter has only recently garnered attention. The exceptional quality of Still Life with Fruit and Nuts suggests that much remains to be learned about this little-known aspect of his career.