Raised in Monroe, Ohio, and trained in the family trades of house painting and carpentry, Robert Duncanson dreamed of becoming an artist. He relocated to Mt. Pleasant (now Mt. Healthy) and taught himself to paint by executing portraits, sketching nature and copying prints.
In 1848, abolitionist minister Charles Avery commissioned him to paint Cliff Mine, Lake Superior, which launched his career as a landscape painter. By 1850, Duncanson caught the eye of Cincinnati millionaire and arts patron Nicholas Longworth and was commissioned to paint a series of murals painted on the entryway of his home (now the Taft Museum of Art).
In 1853, Robert Duncanson became the first African American artist to make the traditional “grand tour” of Europe to further his art education – he even painted for Queen Victoria. Upon returning to Cincinnati, he expanded his works to include daguerreotypes for black photographers, an anti-slavery panorama and portraits of several abolitionists.
During the Civil War, Robert Duncanson lived in Canada, where he was well–received as an artist. Leaving for the British Isles in 1865, he returned to Cincinnati, an internationally–recognized artist. He began to show signs of dementia, likely the result of years of exposure to lead-based paints. While installing an exhibition in Michigan in 1872, Robert Duncanson suffered a seizure and died. He is buried in Woodland Cemetery in Monroe, Michigan.
Robert Duncanson’s murals at the Taft Museum of Art were conserved between 1994 and 2000. Likely inspired by the Ohio River Valley, the murals are now recognized as the most significant pre–Civil War domestic murals in the United States.
The Duncanson Artist-in-Residence Program was established in 1986 to honor the achievements of contemporary Black artists working in a breadth of artistic disciplines. Each year, the Taft Museum selects an artist to work directly with the public and area schools. The 2021 Duncanson Artist-in-Residence is Project Runway alum Asha Ama Bias-Daniels.
The Duncanson Murals | Historic Murals at the Taft Museum
Robert S. Duncanson | African American Resources | Cincinnati History Library and Archives (cincymuseum.org)
The First 28, graciously sponsored by the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, celebrates Black Cincinnatians who were the first in their fields. Each day during Black History Month, we will celebrate athletes, artists, business leaders, civil rights activists, educators, physicians and politicians.
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