Robert S. Duncanson, “the best landscape painter in the West”
by Ronda Stiffler
While Robert S. Duncanson is well known in the American art world, some Monroe residents may not know that he, like many of them, grew up in Monroe.
A self-trained painter of landscapes, portraits, still life and murals, Robert apprenticed as a house painter and carpenter during his time in Monroe before moving to Mount Healthy, Ohio, where he pursued a serious career in art.
Robert was born in Seneca County, New York, in 1817 to John Dean and Lucy Duncanson. His family relocated to Monroe when he was still a child, and he grew up expecting to enter into the local family business in carpentry and house painting.
His love of fine arts had other ideas, however, and called him to Ohio, where he was able to break into the world of creating imagery despite his lack of formal training, becoming what biographist Joseph D. Ketner calls the first African-American to create artworks of enduring cultural value.
The Taft Museum of Art is home to eight of Duncanson’s murals, which were originally commissioned by Cincinnati millionaire Nicholas Longworth.
It was the beginning of a distinguished career that was to earn him the title of “the best landscape painter in the west” and lead him to places as far away as Italy and England. Royal figures such as Queen Victoria and the King of Sweden were among the famous purchasers of his works.
Duncanson eventually made his way back to southeastern Michigan, returning for an exhibit of his work in Detroit in October of 1872. While arranging the exhibit, he fell victim of a nervous breakdown, requiring his hospitalization.
Two months later he was dead. It is thought by some that his illness was caused by the lead paint which was used during his house painting days in Monroe.
Duncanson is buried in an unmarked grave in the Duncanson family plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in Monroe.
Joseph D. Ketner has written a book titled “The Emergence of the African-American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson” in which one can find the story of this remarkable artist’s life and view reproductions of some of his works.
Ronda Stiffler is a freelance writer from Monroe County. She’s a firm believer in preserving the past for future generations.
HHT Note: In addition to the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, several of Duncanson’s paintings can be found at the Detroit Institute of Arts as well as prominent museums across the country.