Artist Bio

Back to Artist Listings

Duncanson, Robert Scott

(1821-1872) Robert Duncanson was a major figure in the mid-19th century group of Ohio River Valley painters, and during his lifetime earned a reputation as the best landscape painter in the western United States. The son of a free African-American mother and a Scottish-Canadian father, Duncanson was apprenticed in his youth to his family’s housepainting and carpentry business in Canada. He was self-taught as an artist and began his career first by copying popular prints and later portraits and historical subjects. He worked as an itinerant painter between Detroit and Cincinnati, where he advertised himself as a “daguerreotype artist.” He made frequent sketching trips to the mid-West, New England, and Canada, but always returned to Cincinnati, the city with which he is most closely associated. In the early 1850s he received a commission from Nicholas Longworth, a wealthy Cincinnati arts patron and abolitionist, to execute a series of murals for his home, Belmont. This commission was the largest single project of Duncanson’s career and enabled him to undertake his first grand tour of Europe. He traveled to England and Europe several times, first in the company of painters William Sonntag and John Robinson Tait. His work was well received in England, where he was welcomed by aristocratic anti-abolitionists. Duncanson traveled through Scotland, exhibiting and making sketches that would culminate in a series of successful landscape paintings. His travels in Italy introduced elements of fantasy and exoticism to the work of his mid-career, just as the extreme wilderness of Canada influenced his later painting, which inclined toward greater detail and observation of nature. He exhibited in Detroit, Cincinnati, Chicago and Montreal. Duncanson married twice, and had two children from each marriage. While always excitable and garrulous, Duncanson suffered increasingly from delusions, hallucinations, and anxiety as the years went on. He was hospitalized at the Michigan State Retreat, a sanitarium, and died just before Christmas in 1872. Today his works are found in major museums collections throughout the United States and at Balmoral Castle, Scotland.