Born in Fayette, New York around 1821, Robert S. Duncanson was the son of John Dean and Lucy Nickles Duncanson. Robert's grandfather, Charles Duncanson, had been a slave in Virginia, and after receiving his emancipation, he migrated north with his family about 1790. Sometime following the death of his grandfather in 1828, Robert's family moved to Monroe, located on the western end of Lake Erie in Michigan Territory.
While in Monroe, Robert was trained in the family trades of house painting and carpentry. After serving as an apprentice for several years, Robert formed a painting and glazing business with John Gamblin in 1838. After only a year, the partnership dissolved, and Robert soon decided to pursue a career as an artist. This ambition moved him to relocate to Mt. Pleasant (now Mt. Healthy), Ohio, a village just north of Cincinnati. Here, he taught himself the art of painting by executing portraits, sketching nature, and copying prints.
View of Cincinnati, Ohio from Covington, Kentucky, ca. 1851
Landscape by Robert S. Duncanson, Oil on canvas
Cincinnati History Library and Archives, Cincinnati Museum Center
To support himself as an artist, Duncanson became an itinerant painter, traveling throughout Ohio and Michigan seeking commissions. His earliest dated painting is Portrait of a Mother and Daughter from 1841. In 1842 three of his works were publicly shown for the first time during an exhibition of the Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge in Cincinnati. By the mid-1840s Duncanson's work showed marked improvement as he painted in a variety of forms from portraits to historical scenes to genre works. But in 1848, he received his most important commission when he was asked by abolitionist minister Charles Avery to paint Cliff Mine, Lake Superior, which launched his career as a landscape painter. Associating himself with other Cincinnati landscape artists, like William L. Sonntag and Thomas Worthington Whittredge, Duncanson became influenced by Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School style of painting.
By 1850 Duncanson caught the eye of Cincinnati millionaire and arts patron Nicholas Longworth and was commissioned to paint a series of murals to decorate the entryway of the Longworth mansion Belmont (now the Taft Museum of Art). These eight large landscapes took approximately two years to complete. Commenting on Duncanson's potential as an artist, Longworth wrote Hiram Powers in 1852, "one of our most promising painters is a light mulatto by the name of Duncanson. He is a man of great industry and worth."
Receiving sponsorship to travel abroad in 1853, Duncanson became the first African American artist to make the traditional "grand tour" of Europe to further his art education. Upon his return, he supplemented his income by coloring daguerreotypes for the black photographer James P. Ball, and it is believed he collaborated on Ball's anti-slavery panorama of 1855. During this period, while Duncanson primarily painted landscapes, he also executed portraits of several abolitionists, including James Birney, Robert Bishop, and Freeman Cary.
In 1861 Duncanson completed the largest easel painting of his career, Land of the Lotus Eaters, which was inspired by a poem of Alfred Lord Tennyson. With this painting, the Cincinnati Daily Gazette of May 30, 1861 praised the artist by saying, "Mr. Duncanson has long enjoyed the enviable reputation of being the best landscape painter in the West, and his latest effort cannot fail to raise him still higher in the estimation of the art loving public."
During the Civil War, Duncanson traveled north, and by 1863, he was living in Montreal, Canada where he was well received as an artist. Leaving for the British Isles in 1865, he spent the next year touring his Lotus Eaters. He returned to Cincinnati an internationally recognized artist; however, he soon began to show signs of severe dementia, which may have been the result of years of exposure to lead-based paints. In October 1872, while installing an exhibition in Detroit, Michigan, Robert Duncanson suffered a seizure and died on December 21. He is buried in Woodland Cemetery in Monroe, Michigan.
To learn more about Robert S. Duncanson, consult the following
African American National Biography
General q920.0092 A258
See Vol. 3, pages 100-101 for information about Robert S. Duncanson. View catalog recordRequest slip
Artists in Ohio, 1787-1900: A Biographical Dictionary
Compiled and edited by Mary Sayre Haverstock, Jeannette Mahoney Vance, and Brian L. Meggitt
General q709.771 H387, R.R.
See pages 244-245 for information about Robert S. Duncanson. View catalog recordRequest slip
The Belmont Murals in the Taft Museum
By Joseph D. Ketner II, in Queen City Heritage, Vol. 46, No. 1, Spring 1988, pages 51-63
General f906 H673B
This article discusses Duncanson's landscape murals that were commissioned by Nicholas Longworth to decorate his home. View article (PDF)
The Emergence of the African-American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson, 1821-1872
By Joseph D. Ketner II
General f759.13 K43 Well researched biography of Duncanson, which offers new insights into his life. View catalog recordRequest slip
Lifting the Veil: The Emergence of the African-American Artist
Pamphlets f759.13 D912v
Catalog for a traveling exhibition of Duncanson's work held from September 14, 1995 to September 15, 1996, with stops in Cincinnati, St. Louis, Fort Worth, and Atlanta. View catalog recordRequest slip
Regionalism and Reform: Art and Class Formation in Antebellum Cincinnati By Wendy Jean Katz
General 759.17714 K19
This work explores the role of artists and art organizations in regard to moral and social reform in pre-Civil War Cincinnati. In particular, Katz looks at three local artists, Lilly Martin Spencer, Robert S. Duncanson, and Hiram Powers. View catalog recordRequest slip
Robert S. Duncanson "the spiritual striving of the freedmen's sons"
By Joseph D. Ketner II
Pamphlets 759.13 K43s
Catalog for an exhibition of Duncanson's work held at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, New York in 2011. View catalog recordRequest slip
Sources Used for Biographical Sketch:
The African American National Biography, General q920.0092 A258, Vol. 3, pp. 100-101. Cincinnati History Library and Archives, Cincinnati Museum Center.
Haverstock, Mary Sayre, Jeannette Mahoney Vance, and Brian L. Meggitt, Artists in Ohio, 1787-1900: A Biographical Dictionary. General 709.771, H387, pp. 244-245. Cincinnati History Library and Archives, Cincinnati Museum Center.
Ketner, Joseph D., II, The Emergence of the African-American Artist: Robert S. Dunscanson, 1821-1872. General f759.13 K43. Cincinnati History Library and Archives, Cincinnati Museum Center.
Ketner, Joseph D., II, Robert S. Duncanson "the spiritual striving of the freedmen's sons." Pamphlets 759.13 K43s. Cincinnati History Library and Archives, Cincinnati Museum Center.
Lifting the Veil: The Emergence of the African-American Artist, Pamphlets f759.13 D912v. Cincinnati History Library and Archives, Cincinnati Museum Center.
"The Lotus Eaters." Cincinnati Daily Gazette, May 30, 1861, p. 2.