The descendant of former slaves from Virginia, Robert S. Duncanson was born in Fayette, New York. In 1828, the family moved to Monroe, Michigan, where Robert, along with his brothers, were apprenticed in the family business of housepainting, decorating, and carpentry. Around 1840, Duncanson relocated to Cincinnati to pursue a career as an artist. At that time, Cincinnati–known as the “Athens of the West”–offered a vibrant cultural environment, as well as one of largest communities of “free colored persons” in the country. It was also home to an active community of white abolitionists, many of whom would become Duncanson’s patrons.
After a slow start, Duncanson eventually began to receive commissions for portraits but found his greatest success when he turned his attentions to landscape painting. In 1853, Duncanson traveled to Italy with two other Cincinnati artists, William Louis Sonntag and John Tait. When he returned home the following year, Duncanson began a series of romanticized landscapes based on his time in Italy. Duncanson continued to enjoy critical success, and in 1861, one critic hailed him as “the best landscape painter in the West.”
In 1863, owing to the growing racial strife stirred by the Civil War, Duncanson moved to Montreal, where he remained until after the war. In Canada, as one contemporary reviewer noted, Duncanson’s “color did not prevent his association with other artists and his entrance into good society.” “A Dream of Italy” is among the most significant works Duncanson painted during his exile. Given the turmoil in Duncanson’s native land at the time he painted this, it is difficult not to read “A Dream of Italy” as the artist’s longing for a place of peace and serenity.