African American Artists before the Twentieth Century
Robert Scott Duncanson, Pompeii (1855). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY
The struggle for and attainment of liberty and civil rights during the antebellum, Civil War, and postwar periods provided African American fine artists the freedom (literally and figuratively) needed to practice their crafts. The most prominent black painter of his day, Robert Scott Duncanson directly benefited from the civil rights struggle of the nineteenth century. Duncanson first exhibited in 1842 in the Cincinnati area. In 1853 the Freeman's Aid Society of Ohio sent him abroad to study. His art benefited greatly from his time in Europe, which he wrote "shed a new light over my path." The painting shown here, from 1855, depicts the ruins at Pompeii, Vesuvius in the background, light bathing the entire scene: the two people in the foreground examining ruins; sailboats on the shining, still water; even the side of the volcano in the background—everything calm and bright. The painting, however, contains elements of darkness that can be understood in terms of the political landscape in America at the time, with the country in the throes of armed combat between slavery supporters and abolitionists in Bleeding Kansas and on the brink of national civil war. Looked at this way, the ruins of Pompeii, though bathed in light, are the remnants of a civilization whose time has passed (which can be understood to be the slave South), while Vesuvius (the threat of civil war) smolders on the horizon.