Robert S. Duncanson, like most American landscape painters of his generation, traveled abroad to familiarize himself with the monuments of the classical past and to see Europe’s illustrious art collections. He held the distinction of being the first African American artist known to complete such a journey—an accomplishment proudly noted by abolitionists in America. He made two trips, a grand tour in the early 1850s, starting in London and traveling across the Continent to Italy, and a return visit to England, Ireland, and Scotland in the 1860s. During his first tour of England, Duncanson wrote of his admiration for famed British landscapist J. M. W. Turner [13.2723];Duncanson must surely have also seen John Constable’s landscapes and cloud studies [30.731]. The influence of these British painters can be felt in the drama of the breaking storm clouds that dominate Dog’s Head of Scotland.
This is one of six Scottish landscapes that Duncanson executed late in his career, after he returned to his Cincinnati studio in 1867, at the conclusion of his second trip to Britain. The title of his painting refers to the doglike shape of the jagged cliffs that jut out above the water; while it seems probable that the scene is based upon a real place, the exact location remains unidentified. Duncanson selected a wide canvas to capture the panoramic sweep of the coast. Crashing waves in the foreground, the choppiness of the sea, and the breaking clouds overhead all suggest a storm has recently passed. Men in the foreground haul in the shattered remains of a boat that has been wrecked against the shore. Activity is resuming on the open water, with a number of vessels visible, including two steamers on the far horizon, identifiable by their signature trails of smoke.
The painter created a series of interlocking shapes in his composition. The water follows an S-shaped curve as it outlines the shoal of sand, and the division between the sky and the rocky horizon is traced with jigsaw precision.The larger scene, defined in broad strokes by clouds and cliffs, is balanced with fine details like the crew dragging in the cracked mast, the warming fire visible near the grounded ship, and the gulls playing over the water. What might seem like an empty expanse is in fact filled with life.
Duncanson’s canvas is notable for its sophisticated handling of perspective and the play of light across and through space. This is evident in the recession of the cliffs into the atmospheric haze of the distance. A series of successive, layered planes suggest the geology of slabs of stone stacked at varying angles. Light moves across this complexly rendered surface. The artist’s skill is most masterfully and subtly displayed in the volume and depth of the cloud-filled sky. Working with a narrowly constrained palette, just a few blues, grays, and white, and utilizing the warm pink of his ground, Duncanson depicts illuminated banks of clouds and the breaking light that follows a storm, convincingly recreating the effect of sunlight passing through billowing masses of vapor.
Once thought to have belonged to the impresario P.T. Barnum, Dog’s Head of Scotland was in fact owned by one Thomas Jones Barnum, of Manchester, Missouri—no relation to the famed showman.
1. See Joseph D. Ketner, The Emergence of the African-American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson, 1821–1872 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993), 71.
2. Ibid, 72.
Dog's Head of Scotland
- Robert S. Duncanson, American, 1821–1872
- 66.67 x 125.09 cm (26 1/4 x 49 1/4 in.)
- Medium or Technique
- Oil on canvas
- Accession Number
- On view
- Penny and Jeff Vinik Gallery (The Salon: Americans Abroad in the 19th Century) - 233