Boston Athenæum Adds Rare Painting by Robert S. Duncanson to its Collections

On View Now, Alongside Duncanson on Loan from MFA

Boston, MA — (December 20, 2022) — The Boston Athenæum is pleased to announce that it has acquired a rare painting by the acclaimed nineteenth-century artist Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872). Boatman Delivering Goods on the South Fork, Shenandoah River, Virginia, 1850s is the first work by Duncanson to enter the Athenæum’s Special Collections in the institution’s 215-year history.

Duncanson, who was born in upstate New York in 1821 to free Black parents, was a leading American landscape painter in the years before and after the American Civil War until his death in 1872 from dementia. He received international acclaim for his dynamic compositions and use of color; both characteristics are apparent in Boatman Delivering Goods, a Virginia landscape from the 1850s. At great risk to his personal safety and freedom as a Black man, Duncanson traveled throughout the South before the Civil War. Recent research has revealed the extent of these travels—through Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. Boatman Delivering Goods is an excellent example of Duncanson’s mature style and his sensitive depiction of southern landscapes. 

In Boatman Delivering Goods, Duncanson portrays a solitary boatman at the center of the painting. The boatman propels himself along the Shenandoah, his oars drawn back with inertia and poised to emerge from the water. The boatman is possibly transporting pig iron—a crude iron refined to create wrought iron and steel—produced by the blast furnaces throughout the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Research on the painting is ongoing.

“Robert Duncanson is an artist of long-standing interest to the Boston Athenæum,” said consulting art historian and former Athenaeum Assistant Curator Virginia Reynolds Badgett, PhD. “A painting by Duncanson was posthumously exhibited at the Athenæum in 1874. We are thrilled to add a stunning example of his work to our collections.” 

Boatman Delivering Goods is on view in the Long Room and is interpreted together with materials from the Athenæum’s extensive Special Collections.  It is hung alongside a Duncanson painting on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. 

“It is wonderful to see these two Duncanson landscapes displayed together at the Athenaeum, one depicting the south and the other the north, each of them celebrating nature and alluding to industry at a critical moment in American history,” said Erica Hirshler, MFA’s Croll Senior Curator of American Paintings. “Both paintings demonstrate the artist’s talent and his critical role in our national story.”

The Boston Athenaeum has just completed a renovation and expansion of its landmark building in downtown Boston, creating new spaces to showcase its collection in addition to providing more places for reading, working and cultural events. “This is a tremendously exciting time for us,” said Athenaeum director Leah Rosovsky. “In addition to our revitalization project, we have also re-envisioned how our collection is presented and interpreted to reflect a more expansive view of American art and history. The Robert Duncanson painting is an important reflection of that process.”