Artist Spotlight: Remembering Robert S. Duncanson
Have you heard about the 19th-century landscape painting recently presented to the Biden administration as an inaugural gift? Some reports don’t even name the painter, simply referring to him as a ‘Black artist.’ Really, people??
The artist’s name is Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872). He was the first Black artist to be commissioned as a muralist in the United States! He is also known as the first internationally renowned Black artist and the first known African American to do a grand art tour of Europe.
For this month’s Artist Spotlight, we’d like to highlight Duncanson’s life and work.
🖌 Robert S. Duncanson was born in Fayette, NY to two free Black people. His grandfather was an enslaved person.
🖌 His family were skilled artisans and laborers and so he initially entered the trade of painting houses.
🖌 He trained himself as a fine artist and soon discovered an affinity with landscape painting.
🖌 His art career took off when he moved to Cincinnati.
Duncanson’s talent was his own but in order to surpass racist barriers he had to develop relationships with white patrons. When a wealthy white abolitionist, Nicholas Longworth, hired him to paint eight 9x6 feet landscape murals on the interior walls of his mansion’s entryway, Duncanson became the first recorded Black muralist in the United States.
Duncanson’s murals in Longworth’s home are “recognized as the most significant pre-Civil War
domestic murals in the United States.” They depict a range of tranquil and rugged American landscapes, all rendered with incredible detail. They were eventually covered with wallpaper but, in the 1930s, they were restored and eventually installed in the Taft Museum of Art, where you can still find them today!
Take a closer look at these treasures in a video with a Taft curator.
One thing we love about Duncanson is that he found ways to promote the arts and build community even once he became well-known. For example, when in Canada, he helped to create a school of landscape painting. In 1986, a century after Duncanson’s passing, the Taft Museum established the Duncanson Artist-in-Residence program “to honor the achievements of contemporary Black artists.”
Dunacnon’s artistic contributions were quickly becoming one of the backbones of American art and he achieved a height of success unknown to most artists of color in the 19th century. However, he was still forced to navigate racism. For example, he attempted to “pass” as white, a choice many light-skinned Black folks made in an attempt to escape the great injustices of a white supremacist system. He moved to Canada after the outbreak of the Civil War and largely remained abroad during his lifetime. And his legacy has still been impacted by racist practices: until recently, he was buried in an unmarked grave and his story erased from mainstream remembrance.
It’s important that we fight back against the whitewashing of art history by lifting up artists of color from the past. It’s also urgent that we find sustainable and equitable ways to support contemporary black & brown artists and creators now!
CT Murals is committed to supporting artists on their journey towards becoming expert muralists. We are seeking to build relationships with emerging artists-of-color in Connecticut through our new paid apprentice program.
🖌 Would you like to be part of our efforts to pair experienced and emerging artists? Learn more at http://bit.ly/ctmurals-emergingartists!
Joy Meikle is a Content Creator at CT Murals. She writes from her identities as a white woman; puppeteer and songwriter; reader and birdwatcher. She is passionate about social-emotional wellness, racial justice, and Tarot. Find her on IG at @alegria_moon and follow @ctmurals while you're at it!