Robert Duncanson: From Fame to Obscurity to Fame Once More

How does an African-American artist prominent in the mid 1800s fall into relative obscurity and make a comeback in the late 1900s?

Robert Duncanson was born in Seneca County, New York in 1821. Duncanson’s grandfather Robert, was a former slave from Virginia who, along with his son, was emancipated and moved to New York state in 1790. After his grandfather’s death, Duncanson’s father, John, moved his family to what would later become Michigan and became a successful housepainter and carpenter.

Portrait of John Northrop by Robert Scott Duncanson from the collections of the Ohio Historical Society.

Portrait of John Northrop by Robert Scott Duncanson from the collections of the Ohio Historical Society.

Robert Duncanson was raised and apprenticed in the family trade of house painting. At the age of 17, Duncanson and an associate, John Gamblin, formed a partnership in the painting business following the family tradition. By April 1839, Duncanson’s painting firm disbanded. Lured by personal freedom and economic opportunity, Duncanson moved to Cincinnati, Ohio.

In the late 1830s, Cincinnati boasted the first art academy and the most lucrative cultural environment for artists in the Midwest. The Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge exhibition in 1842 marked Duncanson’s debut when he exhibited the painting Infant Savior and a Fancy Portrait.

According to art critics at the time, Duncanson’s most impressive portrait of this period is the Portrait of William J. Baker. Duncanson likely painted this portrait on commission for William’s father, a Kentucky gentleman. While the family was generous in awarding Duncanson the portrait commissions, author Joseph Ketner speculates, “Whether they wished to maintain the subordinate relationship of blacks to whites in the southern states. This financial situation appears to be common in Duncanson’s early commissions and is evident in his other portraits of the women and children in patron’s households.” Patrons did support Duncanson in his early years, but he was usually only granted less significant commissions than white artists.

Duncanson achieved much success by the mid-1840s. He started to transition from painting portraits to genre compositions during this time, being commissioned for scenes of estates and land along the Ohio River. Duncanson faced greater difficulty securing commissions from white patrons, who were largely unwilling to support an African American artist.

After spending time on the road, Duncanson ultimately chose Cincinnati for his home in 1850 for a number of reasons. Cincinnati had a reputation as a center for the “free colored” population in the United States and was considered by many to be a hotbed of antislavery sentiment.

Nicholas Longworth

Nicholas Longworth

Duncanson studied under landscape painter William Sonntag. With Sonntag’s guidance, Duncanson grew as an artist and within weeks attracted the attention of local press with his new work. Duncanson’s progress as a landscape painter caught the attention of Nicholas Longworth, a major landholder and one of the wealthiest men in the United States. Longworth was known for strict antislavery principles. In 1850, Longworth commissioned Duncanson to decorate his home with landscape murals. This ended up being the largest project of Duncanson’s career. The commission consisted of eight large landscape decorations and two eagles over the arched entrances of the hall. Ketner explains, “These murals stand as the most ambitious and accomplished domestic mural paintings created in the United States before the Civil War.”

Duncanson exhibited extensively after the murals. After touring Europe and some travel in the states, Duncanson moved to Montreal as the Civil War was causing social unrest in Ohio. He immediately became an integral part of the local art culture and was regarded as the best landscape artist in Canada. Duncanson returned to Cincinnati, but his deteriorating mental health ultimately led to his internment in the Michigan State Retreat in 1872. On December 21, 1872, Duncanson died at the sanatorium. Despite his international fame, his work fell into relative obscurity after his death due to the changing cultural tastes at the time and also increasing racism.

Although not very well known by the general public, Robert Scott Duncanson had a significant impact on American art. Duncanson was the first African-American artist to tour Europe through the sponsorship of a white patron. He was the first American painter to take up residence in Canada and focus on its landscape. Duncanson is considered by many to be a pioneer of American Art through his seamless infusion of landscape and greater social issues. In recent years, Duncanson has been extensively researched as there is an increasing interest in the artist because of his skill and background.

Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio

Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio

Duncanson’s paintings can be found across the country today including at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Longworth commissioned murals at still on exhibit at the Taft Museum of Art; the museum even has a Duncanson Society which honors the artist by annually recognizing the achievements of contemporary African-American artists. TheOhio Historical Society has three paintings by Duncanson, John Northrop (H 18006), Jessie Northrop (H 18011), and Ruins of Carthage/Light and Shade (H 85981).

Painting titled "Ruins of Carthage/Light and Shade" from the fine art collections of the Ohio Historical Society.

Painting titled “Ruins of Carthage/Light and Shade” from the fine art collections of the Ohio Historical Society.

What impact do you think Duncanson has had on art today?

Emily Lang, History Curator

Ketner, Joseph D. The Emergence of the African-American artist: Robert S. Duncanson, 1821-1872. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993.

Moore, Lucinda. “America’s Forgotten Landscape Painter: Robert S. Duncanson.” Smithsonian. (accessed January 29, 2014).

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Curators’ Talks Celebrate African American History and Ohio Presidents

Curators’ talks for the month of February recognize the achievements of African American Ohioans and our 8 Ohio Presidents.

February 1
Robert Duncanson: The Best Landscape Painter in the West

Join curator Emily Lang as she discusses the life of prominent Hudson River School painter Robert Duncanson. Born to freed slaves in 1821, Duncanson built his career in Cincinnati. Quickly rising to fame, he was one of the finest landscape painters in country during the mid-1800s. Hear about his struggles and triumphs during his thirty year career and see examples of his artwork Ohio Historical Society fine arts collection.

Ruins of Carthage by Robert Duncanson.

Ruins of Carthage by Robert Duncanson.

February 8
The Mills Brothers

A musical and visual survey of the Mills Brothers, the popular African-American jazz and pop singing group that hailed from Piqua, Ohio. Listen to a selection of their hit recordings and examine archival materials from the Society’s collections, including original recordings such as 78s, 45s and LPs, photographs, letters and ephemera. Learn about one of the most popular and ground-breaking American singing groups of the 20th Century.

February 15
Before They Were President

In honor of President’s Day join Lisa Wood, visual resources curator, to see a selection of photographs picturing Ohio’s eight Presidents in their early years.

February 22
Eagles on their Buttons: African American Service in the Civil War and World War I

Join manuscript curator and military historian John Haas to learn more about Ohio’s African American soldiers. From the 5th United States Colored Troops of the Civil War to the 9th Battalion of the Ohio National Guard in World War I, African American Ohioans have bravely served.

Photograph shows members of the 127th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, the first African American regiment recruited in Ohio during the Civil War. The regiment was formed in 1863, and was subsequently designated as the 5th Regiment, United States Colored Troops. The photograph was taken in Delaware, Ohio, on Sandusky Street near the Ft. Delaware Hotel.

Photograph shows members of the 127th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, the first African American regiment recruited in Ohio during the Civil War. The regiment was formed in 1863, and was subsequently designated as the 5th Regiment, United States Colored Troops. The photograph was taken in Delaware, Ohio, on Sandusky Street near the Ft. Delaware Hotel.

The curators talks are part of a busy schedule of activities at the History Center in February. Check out our full calendar of Black History Month programs.

If you go:

Day and Time: Saturdays in February at 12:30 PM

Location: Ohio History Center at I-71 and 17th Ave.

Cost: Free with museum admission

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Look for the Adena Pot and the Clinton League Memory Book

The Ohio Historical Society staff has had a wonderful opportunity to assist and support our colleagues at WOSU Public Media in their ongoing project to preserve and celebrate the history of historic neighborhoods in Columbus. The eighth documentary in the Columbus Neighborhoods series, Clintonville, was screened at Studio 35 on Thursday, January 23. It will premier Sunday, January 26.

Fragments from a large, thick grit-tempered ceramic vessel that have been glued together. Most of the base is missing and has been restored with foam material. The complete pot was egg-shaped with a flat rim. There are two lug handles that are broken.

Adenda Ceramic Vessel

While you are watching, look for two important pieces from the Society’s archaeology and manuscript collections. Archaeology curators Bill Pickard and Linda Pansing, along with their colleague Dr. Jules Angel from Ohio State University, shared the story of how mounds built by the Adena Culture were discovered in Clintonville when the Dominion Land Company began building homes in the 1950s. The artifacts, including a great deal of pottery, are curated at the Ohio Historical Society. This particular pot (call number A 3336/000093) has been reconstructed and is currently on display in the exhibit Following in Ancient Footsteps at the Ohio History Center.

Clinton League Memory Book in storage at the Ohio Historical Society Archives/Library.

Clinton League Memory Book in storage at the Ohio Historical Society Archives/Library.

From the manuscript collections a memory book carefully compiled by the ladies of the Clinton League is also featured. Originally known as the Clinton Child Welfare League, the group was founded in 1912 to promote child welfare and later general welfare in Columbus, Ohio. Included in the scrapbook are many photographs that show even in the early 1900s the Clintonville neighborhood was a farm community and more like living in the country, than a city or suburb. For long term preservation the memory book has been microfilmed and is available in the Research Room of the Archives/Library. In addition to the Memory Book there are also Clinton League records (call number MSS 557) documenting the history of the organization from 1912-1988. This collection includes meeting minutes, treasurer’s ledgers, correspondence, and other memorabilia.

Pop some popcorn, keep your eye out for the Society’s collections and watch Columbus Neighborhoods: Clintonville on Sunday, January 26. If you live in the neighborhood, you might spot yourself.

L. Wood, Curator for Visual Resources

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“I Found a Photograph Marked Baker Art Gallery”

In the decades they were in business the Baker Art Gallery produced innumerable family portraits, commercial images, and photographs of prominent people. Patrons are more likely to contact us to ask about Baker photographs than any other photography studio represented in the Ohio Historical Society’s collections.

Exterior photograph of Baker Art Gallery, on the corner of State and High Streets, Columbus, Ohio, ca. 1905.

Exterior photograph of Baker Art Gallery, on the corner of State and High Streets, Columbus, Ohio, ca. 1905.

Baker Art Gallery was the most prominent photography studio in Columbus, Ohio for over eighty years.  The studio was founded by Lorenzo Marvin Baker.  He began his photography career in the 1860s.  His studio was located in different locations on High Street in downtown Columbus.  In 1886 the studio became known as Baker’s Art Gallery or Baker Art Gallery and his son Duane joined the business.  Four generations of the Baker family operated the studio until 1955.  After the studio closed Mrs. Lorenzo P. Baker donated a large collection of negatives and photographs from the studio to the Ohio Historical Society.

Portrait of Ohio Governor and U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes by the Baker Art Gallery.

Portrait of Ohio Governor and U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes by the Baker Art Gallery.

The studio’s specialty was portrait photography.  Located near the Ohio Statehouse, they took photographs of most Ohio legislators and state officials in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Many celebrities and dignitaries also had their portraits taken at Baker’s, including sharpshooter Annie Oakley and U.S. Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Warren G. Harding.

Baker was also known for sentimental studies and photographs documenting the Columbus area.  The sentimental studies were often idealized views of family life or dramatic scenes.  These were widely published in magazines and reproduced for customers to purchase for decor.  You can see more examples of Baker Art Gallery photography in our digital library, Ohio Memory.  Type ‘Baker Art Gallery’ in the search box to retrieve Baker images. Have you ever found a photograph marked Baker Art Gallery?

Sentimental scene photographed by the Baker Art Gallery.

Sentimental scene photographed by the Baker Art Gallery.

L. Wood, Curator for Visual Resources

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Your Tax Return Can Make History!

Annie Oakley Tax Check Off Advertisement

Donate to Ohio History on your Ohio tax return and help support history projects in local communities that invest in Ohio’s economy.
The funds generated through the Ohio History “Tax Check-Off” are made available through a competitive matching grants program, the History Fund. The History Fund supports the preservation and sharing of Ohio’s heritage by supporting local projects, programs, and events related to Ohio’s history.

Small donations make a BIG difference
For just $8, you can help repair a roof, preserve rare color film footage, or stage a historical reenactment.

The Ohio History Tax Check-Off needs your support now
Why? The upcoming tax season is especially important. The Ohio General Assembly recently established a new threshold for tax check-off programs. The Ohio Historical Society needs to generate at least $150,000 each year or the Ohio History Tax Check-Off, and the History Fund grants program it supports, could be jeopardized.

It’s easy to donate to Ohio History on your tax return
Look for “Ohio Historical Society” on your Ohio tax return and designate a dollar amount. That’s it! Your tax-deductible donation goes to support history projects in local Ohio communities.

Other ways to support the History Fund Grant Program
Your Ohio tax return is just one way you can support history projects in your local community. You can also give directly to the Ohio Historical Society and designate your gift to the “History Fund.” Click here for more information.

Help promote the Ohio History Tax Check-Off
To be a part of the Ohio History Tax Check-Off campaign and to access free promotional materials, go

Ohio History Tax Check-Off
Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Ohio History Tax Check-Off?
The Ohio History Tax Check-Off is way for Ohioans to contribute to state and local history projects by “checking off” a donation on the state personal income tax form. Donations are tax deductible.

How is the money from the Tax Check-Off used?
Donations from the Ohio History Tax Check-Off are used to fund local history projects throughout Ohio through the History Fund grant program.

The History Fund was created to support the preservation and sharing of Ohio’s heritage by funding local, regional, and statewide projects, programs, and events related to the broad sweep of the state’s history. Funded from Ohio tax returns, it is a competitive matching grants program that requires grant recipients to have a matching funding source. The Ohio Historical Society administers the program and cannot apply for a grant. For more information about the History Fund grant program and how to apply, visit

What projects have been funded through the Ohio History Tax Check-Off?

The funds from the Ohio History Tax Check-Off go into the History Fund Grant program. In its first year in operation, 11 History Fund Grants were given out to organizations throughout Ohio. Click here to read about the recipients and their funded projects.

How was the Ohio History Tax Check-Off created?
The Ohio History Tax Check-Off was created in the state’s two-year budget that was signed into law by Gov. John R. Kasich on June 30, 2011. The legislation allowing for the change in state tax forms was initially brought to the General Assembly by former State Rep. Kathleen Chandler (D-Kent) in 2005. State Rep. Randy Gardner (R-Bowling Green) reintroduced it in early 2011 before it was enacted in the state budget. 

Who is eligible to apply for a History Fund grant?
Local historical societies, public libraries, genealogical societies, university archives and special collections, historic preservation groups, archeological societies, county records management offices, and incorporated “friends” groups of any of the above. The Ohio Historical Society is not eligible for a grant. Click here for more information about applying for a grant.

How can I find out more information?

We’d love to hear from you and answer any questions. Please contact the Local History Office at or (614) 297-2340/(800) 858-6878.

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New Faces

Faces of Appalachia Exhibit

Exhibit Extended

Faces of Appalachia, an exhibit featuring the work of traveling Ohio photographer Albert J. Ewing (1870–1934), went on display at the Ohio History Center in 2013. Recently extended through June 1, the exhibit now features a fresh selection of Ewing’s glass-plate negatives. Taken between 1896 and 1912, they are being exhibited for the first time ever.

The new group of 122 glass-plate negatives from the Ohio Historical Society’s Albert J. Ewing Collection went on display in the third floor lobby of the Ohio History Center in Columbus last week, where you can see them through June 1, 2014. Another part of the Ewing exhibit, also on display through June 1, is in the Spotlight Gallery on the first floor of the Ohio History Center museum.

Traveled Rural Southeast Ohio and Northern West Virginia

Ewing lived in Lowell, Ohio, a community north of Marietta on the Muskingum River. He traveled rural areas of southeast Ohio and northern West Virginia to take photographs between 1896 and 1912. Many are portraits taken on site, sometimes using improvised backdrops.

Displayed on light boxes so you can see the images, Ewing’s glass-plate negatives are part of a collection of more than 4,000 that arrived at the Ohio History Center in 1982 still packed in the boxes in which he had bought his undeveloped plates, with very little information about the people and places they picture.

“While planning the exhibit we had many questions to try to answer,” says Ohio Historical Society Visual Resources Curator Lisa Wood.

“We examined Ewing’s negatives for clues and consulted a variety of sources like census records, city directories and vintage newspapers to piece together his life and career,” Wood says. “However, we still had unanswered questions about Albert and his family.

“For example, negatives signed ‘Ewing Brothers’ and photographs of him with his younger brother, Frank, gave us reason to believe that Frank joined Albert in the photography business. Albert was a traveling photographer, so there was a lot of work involved in transporting, setting up and repacking his equipment. A second pair of hands would have been welcome. However, Albert also had two older brothers, Thomas and Elbridge, so we weren’t sure whether Frank was the brother in ‘Ewing Brothers.”

Relatives Share Information

Unidentified woman photographed by Albert Ewing with a mountain landscape, circa 1896-1912.

Unidentified woman photographed by Albert Ewing with a mountain landscape, circa 1896-1912.

Since Faces of Appalachia opened, several Ewing family members — grandchildren of one of Albert Ewing’s sisters — have contacted the Ohio Historical Society, Wood says.

“They were able to support much of the information we had uncovered during our research. Though there were four brothers in the Ewing family, they strongly believe that uncle Frank is the brother in ‘Ewing Brothers,’” she says.

“They weren’t sure how Albert Ewing chose photography as a career and they don’t know why he left the photography business after about 1910, either,” Wood says. “Introduction of the Kodak Brownie camera in 1900 and other changes in technology that made amateur photography easier for more people, together with the taxing physical labor of moving his big wooden camera and other equipment may have led him to change careers.”

Museum Visitors Help Identify Photographs

“Since the exhibit opened, we’ve also been contacted by people who recognize places pictured in the photographs,” Wood adds.

“Before the exhibit opened, we wondered whether visitors might recognize anyone in the photos and help us identify them. So far, they’ve identified locations on the Ohio River and the newspaper office in Ritchie County, W. Va., but not individual people. Like Albert, we know little about most of the people he photographed. If we’re lucky, their names are written on the edge of the glass plate negatives, but most of them remain unknown.”

See the New Negatives

Photograph of two unidentified men with a banjo by Albert Ewing, circa 1896-1912.

Photograph of two unidentified men with a banjo by Albert Ewing, circa 1896-1912.

Wood says that the new negatives now on display feature themes of family, community and work and play as well as the material culture and physical landscape of Appalachia in the early 1900s.

“We are very excited to share more of this unique collection,” she says. “In 2013 we learned so much more about Albert Ewing and his life and work than we knew before the exhibit opened. Who knows what may come to light when more people see the exhibit in 2014?”

In addition to the negatives, the exhibit includes approximately 75 prints made from negatives in the Ewing collection that document the everyday lives of people in the region; an interactive 1890s photography studio with props and period-style clothing where you can create your own old-time photographs using your cell phone or camera; and a storyboard where you can search through photos mounted on magnetic sheets then post them on a board and create your own stories and captions.

Ohio History Center Museum Hours and Admission

See Faces of Appalachia: Photographs by Albert J. Ewing at the Ohio History Center in Columbus through June 1, 2014. While at the Ohio History Center, also see 1950s: Building the American DreamTransformation and permanent exhibits on Ohio history, natural history and archaeology.

The Ohio History Center museum is open five days a week: Wednesdays–Saturdays 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and Sundays noon–5 p.m. Ohio History Center museum admission is $10/adult; $9/senior (age 60+); $5/youth (ages 6-12); and Free/child (age 5 and under). Ohio Historical Society members enjoy free admission. The museum is closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Questions about visiting the Ohio History Center or the Ewing exhibit? Call800.686.6124.

Explore More
Explore the Ohio Historical Society’s Albert J. Ewing Collection online at

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Archives Preservation and Digitization Grants Opportunity

The Ohio Historical Records Advisory Board (OHRAB) announces the availability of grants between $500 and $2,000 to archival institutions to fund projects to preserve and/or provide access to Ohio’s historical records. Proposals must be received by February 28, 2014. Awards will be announced March 21, and projects must be completed by December 31, 2014.

Full details on the grant are on OHRAB’s website but some highlights include:

• Eligible institutions may be public or private.

• Any size institution may apply, but preference will be given to institutions with permanently valuable archival materials of 500 cubic feet or fewer.

• Eligible projects include those involving physical access, arrangement, and description; preservation (including storage materials); and making catalog descriptions of records or digital images of records available on line.

• Eligible expenses include supplies and storage materials, technical equipment, and contracted services.

Funding is made available by a Federal regrant opportunity from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), an arm of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

If you have questions or require a hard copy of the application package, please contact Judith G. Cetina, Ph.D., County Archivist, 2905 Franklin Blvd., Cleveland, OH 44113; 216-443-7262;

The Ohio Historical Records Advisory Board is the central body for historical records planning in the state. Board members are appointed by the governor and represent Ohio’s public and private archives, records offices, and research institutions.  Administrative responsibility for the board rests with the Ohio Historical Society’s Museum and Library Services Division. The board also acts as the state-level review body for grants submitted to the NHPRC, in accordance with that commission’s guidelines.

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