In the 1840s, artist Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872) arrived in Cincinnati, establishing himself as one of the first African American artists to gain international recognition. Although it is difficult to determine where Duncanson learned to paint, he advertised his services as a “fancy painter” along with house painting. Duncanson also worked at a daguerreotype studio producing photographic portraits. Yearning to improve his painting skills, however, he began to paint landscapes of the Ohio River Valley, drawing on the Hudson River School style to improve his technique.
Duncanson’s career was manifested through a large commission by Cincinnati art patron Nicholas Longworth. The commission involved a suite of landscape mural paintings that were to adorn the walls of Longworth’s grand Pike Street home, Belmont, now the Taft Museum of Art. Today, the murals stand as evidence of Duncanson’s most ambitious artistic creations. Each measures 91/2 by 6 feet and is framed by a painted scroll that is meant to fool the eye. Together, the eight paintings constitute one of the largest existing pre-Civil War domestic mural decorations in the United States. They survive as a lasting memorial to this gifted artist and as an integral part of the Taft Museum of Art.
From Cincinnati, Duncanson traveled to Canada, Italy, Scotland, and England and then returned to the United States where he later died in 1872 while working on an exhibition in Detroit, Michigan. His works were highly regarded and were purchased by the queen of England, among others.