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Artist Duncanson's sweeping, complex life

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Posted at 7:00 AM, Feb 25, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-25 07:00:07-05

CINCINNATI -- Revered landscape painter Robert S. Duncanson — the first African-American artist to earn an international reputation — seemingly moved with ease between the white and black societies of Cincinnati in the mid-1800s.

Photographs show he was a far better dresser than his benefactor, eccentric Cincinnati multimillionaire Nicholas Longworth. Duncanson had light brown skin and combed his hair tight to his scalp, helping him fit in among whites for whom he painted portraits and sweeping bucolic scenes.

But there was a second side to Duncanson: He was an abolitionist.

In 1855, when African-American photographer James Presley Ball fielded a team from the nation’s first cluster of black artists to create a 2,500-square-yard mural depicting the horrors of slavery, he called on his friend Duncanson to provide counsel and serve as his touch-up artist.

Duncanson (1821-1872) lived and worked in Cincinnati when it was growing rapidly and had become a center of abolitionism. The Anti-Slavery League, some members of which were Duncanson subjects, so admired the artist that it paid for him to travel to Europe to study with the masters and find inspiration. Duncanson also participated in anti-slavery societies and donated paintings to help them raise money.

It took a special person to walk the line between the races, but walk it he did — for a lifetime.

Art critics Everlyn Nicodemus and Kristian Romare wrote this about Duncanson in their essay in Brill Publishers’ “Africa in Scotland, Scotland in Africa”:

Duncanson posed for this portrait at a Cincinnati photography studio in 1864. Public domain

“The unforeseeable play of genes had supplied Robert Duncanson with a fairly light complexion. He could have passed for being white. But African-American he was, and he was widely known as such in Cincinnati through his collaboration with fellow African-Americans and abolitionists.”

Great-grandson of a slaveholder

Duncanson’s great-grandfather was a Scotsman and a slaveholder in Virginia. A son he fathered with a slave grew up to be the plantation’s house painter, who earned enough money to buy his freedom and escape to the North with his family.

Robert’s father, John Duncanson, married Lucy Nichols and had seven children in upstate New York and Canada, where they would be safe if slave hunters were to come calling. John continued to paint home interiors, likely honing the artful decorating skills he passed on to Robert.

The family moved to Michigan when Robert was about 10. Historians say it was during this move that Robert Duncanson likely saw the Hudson River, whose school of painters he emulated later in life.

Drama and courage came into Duncanson’s life in Michigan. He broke off from his father while in his late teens and started his own painting company, taking out ads in local papers to build his business. He painted portraits with “stereotypical stiffness,” wrote Nicodemus and Romare. But the self-taught artist kept at it and started painting landscapes.

By then estranged from his angry father, Duncanson, in about 1840, moved to a community of abolitionists and free black men north of Cincinnati called Mount Pleasant (later renamed Mount Healthy). He copied prints, worked in photography and landed his first exhibit of Hudson River School-style landscapes in 1842.

Duncanson married during this period and had a son, Reuben, in 1844. But his wife, Rebecca Graham, died, leaving him alone with the baby. Census records show he remarried a woman named Phoebe 14 years his junior, but probably not until the mid-1850s at the earliest.

It was in 1851, while he was a widower, that Duncanson got his big break. Nicholas Longworth, who at one time paid the second-highest tax bill in the nation behind John Jacob Astor and was an active abolitionist, hired Duncanson to paint murals on the entry hall walls of Belmont, the family’s downtown estate that is now the Taft Museum of Art.

“When (Longworth) gave Duncanson this very important commission, he gave him the Good Housekeeping stamp of approval,” said Smithsonian American Museum of Art historian Claire Perry in a 2011 article in the museum’s online magazine. The Belmont murals helped earn the ambitious Duncanson his first trip to Europe in 1853.

The outbreak of the Civil War followed by the Emancipation Proclamation instilled fear throughout the North, including in Cincinnati. Tumultuous times tainted attitudes toward free blacks, and some historians theorize that a worried Duncanson, who by this time had a second son, Milton, and was living downtown, left Cincinnati for a couple of years.

He traveled to Canada and rekindled fond memories and relationships with the art community there. And he returned to Europe, where he was treated like a celebrity. He met earls, duchesses, even the King of Sweden, who purchased his celebrated painting, “Land of the Lotus Eaters.” Even Queen Victoria bought a Duncanson painting, according to www.findagrave.com

Peak years end too soon

The last half of the 1860s were Duncanson’s peak years as a landscape artist. He opened a new gallery in Cincinnati, painted numerous views of his beloved Scottish Highlands and toured the country with some of his paintings that were selling for as much as $15,000 (about $300,000 today).

But something was wrong with Robert Duncanson. He became increasingly delusional and fitful, and art historians say his paintings reflected his turbulent mood swings. He was diagnosed with dementia.

But what was the cause? Some historians say it was lead poisoning contracted over decades of painting houses, mixing paints and creating art. Others say the stress of constantly walking the line between white and black society got to him.

“He did live a life of incredible stress as a successful African-American in a white-dominated world,” said the Smithsonian’s Perry. “But people who perform at the highest level of artistic skills are also people of unusual sensitivity.”

Robert Duncanson died in October 1872 two months after suffering a seizure while setting up an exhibition in Detroit. He is buried in an unmarked grave in his boyhood home of Monroe, Mich. 

Robert Duncanson’s legacy

Duncanson’s eight gilded, framed trompe l’oeil murals in the Taft Museum of Art “stand as the most accomplished domestic mural paintings in America before the Civil War,” according to art historian Joseph D. Ketner II. Yet like the man who took two years to complete them with paint he mixed himself, the murals were quickly forgotten, papered over by the Longworths before Duncanson died.

The murals were rediscovered behind layers of wallpaper in 1930 and painstakingly restored in 2004. Today, the sweeping scenes are the pride and joy of Cincinnati’s little museum and are guarded by security officers.

Duncanson’s legacy lives not only in the Belmont murals but in the Duncanson Artist-in-Residence program established by the Taft Museum of Art in 1986. The educational program honors top African-American painters, photographers, musicians, dancers, authors, poets and other artists from Cincinnati and around the country.