Yesterday the National Gallery of Art told the New York Times and the Washington Post that it has acquired a small 1848 still-life painting by Robert S. Duncanson (at right), one of the most significant mid-19th-century painters of the then-West.
Perhaps in order to keep the scooplets coming, both the Times and the Post failed to note why this is news: The National Gallery of Art’s West Building American art galleries have long been the whitest, most male-dominated places in American art. Installing the Duncanson, which the Times reports the NGA did this week, means the NGA now has three paintings by African-American painters on view in its American art galleries: The new Duncanson, a tiny Tanner and a super Joshua Johnson. While I haven’t kept a daily tally, that’s likely the most paintings by non-white men the NGA’s American galleries have presented since they were remodeled and re-installed a little more than two years ago. Still, there are now 156 artworks by white men on view (plus one painting that’s by an unknown artist). When last I checked, There are no artworks by women. (Update, 5:15pm ET. The post has been updated.)
For several years I’ve criticized the NGA’s presentation of American art, noting that as long as it insisted on presenting American art as an almost white-males-only domain that it was presenting a false history of art in America. (I’ve also criticized the NGA’s worst-among-its-peers record of exhibiting female artists.) Acquiring the Duncanson is a mild improvement. (Next up: A hard-to-find Duncanson landscape, in which the Cincinnati Art Museum is particularly strong.)
The NGA still has work to do: According to its online collection tool, the NGA still lacks works by Edward Bannister, Edmonia Lewis, Grafton Tyler Brown and Aaron Douglas. The museum has a fine collection of works by Johnson, but only one is on view.
Good on the NGA for finally adding a Duncanson. But the NGA’s collection of and presentation of American art remains a work in progress.