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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