African American Artists before the Twentieth Century
Robert Scott Duncanson, Waterfall at Mont-Morency (1864). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY
Duncanson's Civil War-era paintings often have a dark and heavy feeling to them, as the war continued to drag and the toll continued to mount. A stark realism exists in many of them, including the painting shown here, a scene covered in shadows and empty of people. In an earlier, more peaceful period, such a landscape would speak of the regenerative powers and transcendental properties of nature, of the new political order that exists in the "New World," of Manifest Destiny and future greatness; realism often combined with the sublime or with sentimentalism, undercutting the political reality of a nation of slaves, built on the lands of conquered and mistreated native peoples. In Waterfall at Mont-Morency, however, the sentimentality is gone and while the sublime exists, it threatens and refuses to uplift the viewer, whose gaze is pulled away from the stormy sky by the downward motion of the waterfall and the crushing turmoil at its base.