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22 May 2012

Robert S. Duncanson: First Professional African-American Artist

Robert Seldon Duncanson (1821-1872) was an African-American landscape painter in the United States whose work is similar to the art of the Hudson River School artists. Duncanson was a successful landscape and portrait artist and became the first professional African-American artist in America. Duncanson was a self-taught artist with no formal art training.

View of Cincinnati, Ohio From Covington, Kentucky circa 1851
Duncanson was born in 1821 in Fayette, New York where he lived until age 7 when his family moved to Monroe, Michigan. His grandfather was the son of a white slave owner. His grandfather earned his freedom and was a skilled carpenter and house painter. Duncanson decided that he wanted to do more with his life than paint houses. As a teenager, he taught himself to paint portraits. In 1840 when he was age 20, Duncanson moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, the cultural center of the Midwest at the time. An abolitionist center was also located in Cincinnati where Duncanson found support among some of Cincinnati's influential people at the center. He admired the artists of the Hudson River School style of landscape painting and copied their work. By the end of the American Civil War, his sweeping landscape paintings were shown in the Europe and Canada. His work was exhibited at the Western Art Union in Cincinnati which signaled his acceptance by the local art community.

Duncanson is best known for his landscapes that often depict idyllic scenes that incorporate Greek and Roman elements, such as crumbling columns and overgrown ruins. He began to incorporate these elements in his paintings after a benefactor sponsored his tour of Europe to experience the art of the masters and contemporary artists. His benefactor, Nicholas Longworth, commissioned Duncanson to paint several murals in his home in Cincinnati in 1850. The murals were hidden by wallpaper for more than half a century but were re-discovered when the building was renovated in the 1930s. The murals have been restored and the home is now the Taft Museum of Art.

Duncanson moved to Canada at the start of the Civil War and then traveled to Scotland and England. He continued to paint and became popular among the European aristocracy including Alfred Lord Tennyson. He returned to the United States after the Civil War in 1866 as an internationally acclaimed landscape artist. It was about this time that Duncanson began to suffer from dementia and hallucinations. Art historian Joseph D. Ketner II of Emerson speculates that he probably suffered from brain damage as a result of long-term exposure to lead-based paints. Duncanson's health continued to deteriorate until his death in 1872 at the age of 51. Duncanson is considered one of the great 19th century American landscape painters. Today many of his works are on exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.



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