Robert S. Duncanson

By Cincinnati Art Museum

Cincinnati Art Museum

Cincinnati’s rich cultural heritage is a tribute to the diversity
of its artists: their varied experiences as immigrants or residents of local
birth, their ethnicity, their gender. The history of African American artistic
identity in the Queen City during the 19th century is best studied through the
work of Robert S. Duncanson. As a landscape painter, Duncanson rose to
remarkable stature in the art world of his day, nationally and internationally.
He was bolstered by the support of forward-thinking patrons like Nicholas Longworth,
who could see past a young artist’s race to recognize and foster exceptional
talent.    In this gallery, drawn from the collections of the Cincinnati Art
Museum and the Cincinnati Museum Center, we will explore the work of renowned
19th century landscape painter, Robert S. Duncanson. 

Sunset on the New England Coast (1871) by Robert S. DuncansonCincinnati Art Museum

Robert S. Duncanson

Robert Seldon Duncanson was born in 1821 in Fayette, New York. Charles Duncanson, Robert's grandfather, was an emancipated enslaved man from Virginia. He moved north to Fayette before 1790. Charles's son, John Dean, and his wife, Lucy, raised a family of seven children, including Robert. Duncanson grew up in Monroe, Michigan, where he learned the family trade of house and ornamental painting, as well as carpentry.  Working in Monroe from 1838 to 1839 as a painter and glazier, he dreamed of becoming an artist. He left Michigan around 1840 for Cincinnati, Ohio, to pursue a career as an artist. Moving to Cincinnati offered new opportunities for Duncanson. Located on the Ohio River, Cincinnati was on the border with the Southern states at a time in American history when the abolition of slavery was an important issue. Upon his arrival, Duncanson settled in Mount Healthy, an area northwest of the city known for its abolitionist sympathies and home to a tightly knit group of African Americans. Although he was aware of the struggles he would face as an African American working in a city so close to the south, he soon received several commissions from Cincinnati citizens. Duncanson’s early career in Cincinnati was that of an itinerant artist. Throughout the 1840s, he traveled between Cincinnati and Detroit painting portraits, historical and fancy pictures. As an African American artist, he found it difficult to secure commissions and was at times nearly penniless. His career received a major boost in 1848 when he was commissioned by abolitionist Charles Avery to paint the landscape, "Cliff Mine, Lake Superior". The association led to lifelong relationships with those who wanted to support black artists. 

Also among those interested in Duncanson was Nicholas Longworth (1783–1863), the city’s greatest patron of the arts. In 1850, Longworth commissioned Duncanson to create a series of eight landscape murals for his home, Belmont (now the Taft Museum of Art). While working on this commission, the young artist gained access to Longworth’s art collection and broadened his interest in landscape painting. Longworth was so impressed with Duncanson, referring to him as "one of our most promising painters" and "a man of great industry and worth," that he sponsored his first trip to Europe. Between April 1853 and June 1854, Duncanson made the “Grand Tour” of Europe, visiting London, Paris, and Florence. He was the first African American to have such an opportunity. After returning to Cincinnati, Duncanson continued to paint landscapes in addition to portraits of local citizens, including Longworth. The Hudson River School painters, as well as Worthington Whittredge (1820–1910) and William L. Sonntag (1822–1900) with whom he went on painting excursions in the Ohio Valley, influenced his style of landscape painting. With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Duncanson traveled through the northern United States and Canada, hoping to escape the turmoil of the fighting and anti-African American fervor. In the summer of 1865, Duncanson returned to Europe and traveled to Scotland where he earned international acclaim from the British press.

By the late 1860s, Duncanson struggled with mental illness and believed that the spirit of a master artist possessed him. His delusions may have been brought on by his continuous exposure to lead-based paint, first as a housepainter and later as an artist. Having spent his last years in Michigan, Duncanson died in a Detroit sanatorium on December 21, 1872. 

Cincinnati From Covington, Kentucky - 1850 (1850) by Robert S. DuncansonCincinnati Museum Center

Cincinnati from Covington, Kentucky

"Cincinnati from Covington, Kentucky", most probably painted as a commission, is the first visual representation of Duncanson’s attitudes toward slavery.  The painting, neither signed nor dated, has been credited to Duncanson based on the painting style, which also suggests a date of about 1851. The painting relates to a print, based on a daguerreotype, from an 1848 issue of "Graham’s Magazine". Duncanson’s richly detailed painting adds features that were not included in the print. The print depicts rural Kentucky in the foreground, with a white man leaning on a rifle directing two children to notice a Black man with a scythe. In the painting, the white man is replaced by an African American slave holding a scythe. He and the Black woman hanging laundry depict tasks associated with their labors as slaves. Kentucky’s agricultural economy contrasts sharply with the bustling industrial city across the river, where Duncanson was free to become a professional painter. Yet Cincinnati's development had its costs; the manufacturing prowess of the Queen City, depicted in such detail in this painting, depended upon the South, where people's enslavement drove the economy.

Blue Hole, Flood Waters, Little Miami River (1851) by Robert S. Duncanson (American, b.1821, d.1872)Cincinnati Art Museum

Blue Hole, Flood Waters, Little
Miami River

A popular spot for the city’s painters from the 1830s forward was a pool of water on the Little Miami River, known as Blue Hole. This picturesque area is located in what is now John Bryan State Park, near Yellow Springs, Ohio.  In the painting, the waters of Blue Hole are calm and serene. The mirror like pool reflects the trees in the background as well as the clouds in the sky. At first glance, this scene appears untouched by humans, until one observes three anglers in the central foreground. In this area of the painting, Duncanson also included plants, flowers, and rocks, as well as a few dead tree limbs. Duncanson used a palette of cool colors---silvery blues and greens--to depict the water and especially the treetops in the background. The tranquility in "Blue Hole" may not be coincidental. Perhaps Duncanson was hinting at his belief in a world free from racial hatred, where nature’s beauty helps man forget the troubles of everyday life.

Landscape with Waterfall (1853) by Robert S. DuncansonCincinnati Art Museum

Landscape with Waterfall

Duncanson often included elements that suggest the power of nature in his paintings, such as the massive trees and the waterfall seen in this work. Like many American landscapists of his day, he portrayed nature as an immeasurable, overwhelming expanse. That quality is evident in the deep recession of space from the trees in the foreground to the mountains shrouded in mist near the horizon. With the eight large landscape murals he painted for the home of Nicholas Longworth (today the Taft Museum of Art) the year before he made "Landscape with Waterfall", Duncanson embraced the opportunity to paint landscapes on a large scale. Longworth’s commissions were remarkable for any artist of Duncanson’s age and level of training, let alone for an African American working during the era of slavery. Duncanson’s skill and ambition could only take him so far. Longworth’s support and patronage were crucial in the development of his artistic career.

Minneopa Falls, Minnesota (1862) by Robert S. DuncansonCincinnati Art Museum

Minneopa Falls, Minnesota 

As a free African American living in Cincinnati only miles from the Confederate border, Duncanson surely felt the mounting tension of the Civil War by 1862. In the fall, he left town on a sketching trip to the Upper Mississippi through Minnesota, perhaps for this reason. While there he captured this view of the falls on the Minnesota River near Mankato. The Dakota word "Minneopa", meaning “water falling twice,” refers to the twin waterfalls. A Native American in the foreground is perhaps a reference to Longfellow’s "Hiawatha", a popular poem set in the area. On the surface, the poem is about the vanishing Native American race, but it was also embraced by abolitionists as a symbol of the plight of African Americans, as both races suffered under the control of the European American.

Rising Mist (1867) by Robert S. DuncansonCincinnati Art Museum

Rising Mist

With delicate details and feathery brushstrokes, the artist captured in this jewel-like painting the dramatic natural beauty of the mists rising off a hillside. During the Civil War, free blacks in Cincinnati like Duncanson lived a risky existence. In 1862, he departed for safer ground, traveling through Minnesota and into Canada. Duncanson traveled, in 1865, to the British Isles. During the trip, he toured the Scottish Highlands where the scenery had a profound effect on him. The Scottish countryside reaffirmed his love for British Romantic writers such as Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) and Thomas Moore (1779–1852), and his sketches resulted in several paintings based on these literary inspirations. Duncanson returned to Cincinnati in about 1866. Upon his homecoming, the artist opened a new studio on Fourth Street and was almost immediately swamped with patrons eager to buy his new Scottish literary paintings. The popularity of these paintings encouraged him to satisfy demand with much smaller Scottish views of picturesque sites, such as "The Rising Mist". 

Pass at Leny (1867) by Robert S. DuncansonCincinnati Art Museum

Pass at Leny

During his 1865 trip to the United Kingdom, Duncanson had the opportunity to spend considerable time in Scotland. The scenery of the Scottish Highlands had a profound effect on the artist, reaffirming his love for English Romantic writers like Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832).  For "Pass at Leny", the inspiration came from a passage in "A Legend of Montrose" from the "Waverly Novels" of 1819 by Scott. It reads: “The beautiful pass of Leny…The broken path which they pursued with some difficulty, was in some places shaded by ancient birches and oak trees, and in others overhung by fragments of huge rock…a scene so romantic would have been judged to possess the highest charms for the traveller.” 

Woodland Pool (1868) by Robert S. DuncansonCincinnati Art Museum

Woodland Pool

In "Woodland Pool", tiny figures stand in a clearing in a bower, with warm sunlight penetrating the trees and lighting the composition from the rear. By the winter of 1866-67, Duncanson returned home from three years abroad to take a studio on Fourth Street. Under the influence of English painters, he retreated from the grandeur and romanticism of his paintings of the mid-1850s, in favor of intimate encounters with nature. Duncanson’s brushwork softened, leaving more to the viewer’s imagination.


This painting passed down in the family of its original owner, the Reverend Richard Sutton Rust. Rust was a noted Cincinnati abolitionist, whose home was a gathering place for like-minded citizens including Duncanson. In 1858, the artist painted a portrait of Rust (private collection) to commemorate his appointment as the first president of Wilberforce College, a school dedicated to the education of African Americans.

Credits: Story

Dr. Julie Aronson, Curator of American Painting and Sculpture, Cincinnati Art Museum

Emily Holtrop, Director of Learning and Interpretation, Cincinnati Art Museum

• Cincinnati Art Museum: Gallery Text
• Cincinnati Art Museum: Cincinnati Wing Museum Curriculum
• Ketner, Joseph D. "The Emergence of the African-American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson, 1821-1872". Columbia and London, University of Missouri Press, 1993

Credits: All media
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