Born in Fayette, New York around 1821, Robert S. Duncanson was the son of John Dean and Lucy Nickles Duncanson. Robert’s grandfather, Charles Duncanson, had been a slave in Virginia, and upon receiving his freedom, he relocated his family to the North. Sometime after the death of his grandfather in 1828, Duncanson’s family moved to Monroe, located on the western end of Lake Erie in Michigan.
While in Monroe, Duncanson was trained in the family trades of house painting and carpentry. After serving as an apprentice for several years, Duncanson formed a painting and glazing business with John Gamblin in 1838. After just a year, the partnership dissolved, and Duncanson soon decided to pursue a career as an artist. He settled in Mt. Pleasant (now Mt. Healthy), Ohio, a village just north of Cincinnati. Here, he taught himself the art of painting by creating portraits, sketching nature, and copying prints.
To support himself as an artist, Duncanson became an itinerant painter, traveling throughout Ohio and Michigan seeking commissions. His earliest dated painting is “Portrait of a Mother and Daughter” from 1841. In 1842, three of his works were publicly shown for the first time during an exhibition of the Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge in Cincinnati. By the mid-1840s, Duncanson’s work showed marked improvement as he painted in a variety of forms from portraits to historical scenes to genre works. But in 1848, he received his most important commission when he was asked by abolitionist minister Charles Avery to paint “Cliff Mine, Lake Superior”, which launched his career as a landscape painter. Associating himself with other Cincinnati landscape artists like William L. Sonntag and Thomas Worthington Whittredge, Duncanson was influenced by Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School style of painting.
By 1850, Duncanson caught the eye of Cincinnati millionaire and arts patron Nicholas Longworth and was commissioned to paint a series of murals decorating the entryway of the Longworth Mansion Belmont (now the Taft Museum of Art). These eight large landscapes took approximately two years to complete.
Receiving sponsorship to travel abroad in 1853, Duncanson became the first African-American artist to make the traditional “grand tour” of Europe to further his art education. Upon returning to the US, he supplemented his income by coloring daguerreotypes for the black photographer James P. Ball, and it is believed he collaborated on Ball’s anti-slavery panorama of 1855. During this period, Duncanson also painted portraits of several abolitionists, including James Birney, Robert Bishop, and Freeman Cary.
In 1861 Duncanson completed the largest easel painting of his career: “Land of the Lotus Eaters”, which was inspired by a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. With this painting, the Cincinnati Daily Gazette praised the artist by saying, “Mr. Duncanson has long enjoyed the enviable reputation of being the best landscape painter in the West, and his latest effort cannot fail to raise him still higher in the estimation of the art loving public.”
During the Civil War, Duncanson traveled north, and by 1863, he was living in Montreal, Canada where he was well received as an artist. Leaving for the British Isles in 1865, he spent the next year touring his “Land of the Lotus Eaters” painting.
Eventually, he returned to Cincinnati as an internationally recognized artist. However, he soon began to show signs of severe dementia, which may have resulted from years of exposure to lead-based paints. In October 1872, while installing an exhibition in Detroit, Michigan, Duncanson suffered a seizure and died two months later. He is buried in Woodland Cemetery in Monroe, Michigan.