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Celebrating Black Artists for Black History Month – Visual Art

Updated: May 4, 2021

3 Influential Black Visual Artists

The Banjo Lesson Crop
Crop of "The Banjo Lesson" by Henry Ossawa Tanner

One post, article, or even month can not possibly encapsulate the significant contributions that Black artists have made to arts history, it's a start. The following list meant to be a starting place and by no means all-encompassing. Today, we will discover the works of three Black visual artists and begin to become acquainted with their stories. They are ordered chronologically by birth year not ranked. To learn more about Black arts history, I encourage you to explore the stories including Black artists before the 20th century, the Harlem Renaissance, the creation of Jazz culture, Gospel music, the evolution of Hip Hop as art and culture, and many more topics. See the Further Reading links at the bottom on this post for some informative pages. To read about the story of Black History Month and to learn about five composers of the Black African diaspora, see the previous post, Celebrating Black Artists for Black History Month – Music.

Robert Seldon Duncanson (1821 – 1872)

 Robert S. Duncanson
Robert S. Duncanson

Robert S. Duncanson was born into a family of free Black tradespeople in Fayette, NY in 1821. His family twas originally from Virgina but had relocated to New York. His family eventually moved to Michigan where apprenticed in the family trades of housepainting and carpentry. Without a formal art education, he taught himself to paint artistic works by copying portraits and landscapes.

Duncanson was inspired by famous American landscape artists such as Thomas Cole (Feb. 1, 1801 – Feb.11, 1848) to focus on landscape paintings. His landscapes were, in fact, so renowned that he was was acclaimed the "greatest landscape painter in the west" by the American and European press. At the age of 19, Duncanson chose to relocate to Mt. Healthy, a town near Cincinnati, OH due to the areas arts community. He spent the majority of his career in around Cincinnati and helped develop the Ohio River Valley landscape tradition.

As a free black man in America before the Civil War, Duncanson found support and patronage in the abolitionist community in the United States and Great Britain. He is considered the first African-American artist to achieve international fame and was part of the art circles in Cincinnati, Detroit, Montréal, and London, England.