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The Huntington Acquires Two Paintings By Important African American Artists

July 10, 2014 Destination North America No Comments Email Email

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens continues to enrich its African American art holdings with the receipt of two paintings, one by Robert S. Duncanson (1821–1872) and the other by Charles White (1918–1979).  

Duncanson’s Landscape with Ruin(ca. 1853) is now on view in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art; White’s Soldier (1944) will go on view there when expanded gallery space opens on July 19. The paintings are gifts from California-based collectors Sandra and Bram Dijkstra.

Landscape with Ruin was made by Duncanson (who was one of very few African American artists who enjoyed a successful career in the 19th century) while on his first trip to Europe, just as his talents as a landscape painter began to peak. Soldier is White’s powerful portrait of a World War II sergeant. White is known for socially charged figurative paintings and murals made from the time of the Great Depression through the Civil Rights era. Both men are considered among the most important African American painters of their eras.

“The Dijkstras are true connoisseurs of American art, and, not surprisingly, their gifts to The Huntington are superb,” said Kevin Salatino, Hannah and Russel Kully Director of the Art Collections at The Huntington. “The Duncanson landscape is a dramatically composed, moody piece that gives important breadth to our Hudson River school collection. Soldier will mesmerize visitors with its expressionist power and heartbreaking symbolism. Strengthening our representation of works by African American artists has been a longstanding goal, so these gifts also demonstrate the Dijkstras’ keen vision and understanding of the institution. We are deeply grateful.”

Landscape with Ruin (ca. 1853) by Robert S. Duncanson

Cincinnati-based Duncanson was already a working portraitist and had produced some successful landscape commissions when, in 1853, he left for his first visit to Europe; it wasn’t until he began painting there that his career really took off. Created during that European tour, Landscape with Ruin depicts fantastic craggy cliffs, wind-twisted trees, and a dilapidated castle. The dramatic scene with its shadowy foreground opens onto rolling mountains bathed in dusky, rosy light.

“This landscape is almost certainly imaginary, an amalgam of scenes that Duncanson experienced during his travels, and that’s what makes it so magical,” said Jessica Todd Smith, Virginia Steele Scott Chief Curator of American Art at The Huntington. “It has its own personality, but also shares traits with other American landscapes from the period already in the collections—for example the monumental Chimborazo by Frederic Edwin Church, inspired by the artist’s trips to South America, and Rocky Landscape painted by John Frederick Kensett around the same time that Duncanson madeLandscape with Ruin. Together these paintings say a great deal about how mid-19th-century landscapes were designed to transport their viewers to romantic, dramatic versions of the natural world.”

Duncanson was supported by Abolitionist patrons in the United States, but with the onset of the Civil War he moved to Canada and then England and became even more widely acclaimed while in exile. The London Art Journal wrote in 1866 that “Mr. Duncanson has established high fame in the United States and Canada.”

Soldier (1944) by Charles White

Charles White was born in Chicago and moved to Los Angeles in 1956, teaching at the Otis Art Institute from 1965 until his death in 1979. He is probably best known for his paintings and drawings that focus on social issues and African American subjects.

“From the man’s massive, almost machine-like hands to his sadly expressive face,  Soldier combines modern and traditional techniques to convey strength, fortitude, and anguish,” said Smith. “It shows a soldier in a desert, which seems to represent the agonizing isolation that war and racism can cause.”

White probably drew on his own experience for the painting. When drafted for military service in early 1944, he assumed he would be contributing to the fight against the Nazi regime in Europe, but instead learned a disheartening lesson of American racism when he found his African American troop assigned to brute labor on the home front—digging out mud caused by massive flooding of the Mississippi River. The experience gave him tuberculosis, a disease that dogged him for the rest of his life.

Bram Dijkstra, cultural historian and retired professor at the University of California, San Diego, said of the gift, “I’ve long thought highly of The Huntington, where different fields of the humanities intersect. Sandy and I are so pleased to be seeing our paintings finding a home on the walls of a museum we have admired and enjoyed for years.”

Robert S. Duncanson (1821–1872), Landscape with Ruin (ca.1853), oil on canvas, 32 x 44 in.; Charles White (1918–1979), Soldier (1944), tempera on masonite, 30 x 25 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © 1944 The Charles White Archives.

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