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Robert Duncanson's Cincinnati

By Laura James · August 26th, 2007 · The Big Picture
  The Taft Museum of Art's second floor hallway features landscapes by Robert Duncanson.
Joe Lamb

The Taft Museum of Art's second floor hallway features landscapes by Robert Duncanson.

Time-honored landscape paintings aren't my forte, as far as art goes. But art with a story is. Landscape painting in the Hudson River School tradition and a riveting tale come together in the second floor hallway of THE TAFT MUSEUM OF ART every day in the spectacular murals by ROBERT DUNCANSON.

We think of Duncanson (1821-1872) as a Cincinnati artist, even though he was born in upstate New York. He was the grandson of an emancipated Virginian slave and the son of an African-American mother and Scottish-Canadian father.

Duncanson came to our city more than 20 years before the Civil War, when slavery was a hotly-debated issue. At the time, art collectors and patrons were -- predictably -- all white. Many artists have struggled against adversity, but few like Duncanson. He was a free man, but he was black. Even in the boarder state of Ohio, his race would be nearly insurmountable. The teenage painter poised himself against a vast racial barrier.

Though the timeline remains unclear, scholars believe that Duncanson studied art in Scotland before moving to Cincinnati with his mother.

Billing himself as a "fancy painter," he painted houses as well as portraits of local abolitionists and others. His sense of recording and portraiture led him to work at a daguerreotype studio, where he produced early photographs.

Sometime around 1842, he began exhibiting his work at various venus in the city.

The Hudson River School -- a mid-19th-century painting tradition headed by artists like Thomas Cole -- greatly influenced the young artist. He began painting large landscapes, emphasizing the magnificence of nature and the American topography. These landscapes remained untouched by the push of human cultivation. They were wild and unmarred and gave Duncanson his fame.

In the early 1850s, Duncanson's landscapes caught the eye of local horticulturist and banker Nicholas Longworth. At that time, Longworth and his family owned Belmont, the house that would become the Taft Museum. For as long as I've lived in Cincinnati, I've known Longworth's name, but I never knew that he is known as the "Father of American Grape Culture," or that his wine was at the heart of German immigration to our city.

Longworth made a fortune from his wine and had the finances to commission Duncanson to create a mural in his home. The artist created a suite of eight oil paintings, each measuring 9 1/2 by 6 feet. Trompe l'oeil scrolls frame each panel.

According to the Taft Museum, "the murals stand as evidence of Duncanson's most ambitious artistic creations ... (and) constitute one of the largest existing pre-Civil War domestic 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."

The murals are brilliant and elegant. They represent mid-19th-century landscape at its finest. But don't let their beauty overwhelm you too much to see their historical importance.

Belmont changed owners. It survived a bitter civil war. The home, partly because of its location, partly because of its owners and partly because of its owners' art collection, became a museum. Throughout all the stylistic changes in the city, and despite the personal tastes of the owners and the explosive racial and political era, the Duncanson murals were never touched.

Cincinnati is home to many once-clandestine stops on the Underground Railroad. If you've ever ventured inside of one of these cramped, melancholy spaces, you've likely felt history's entrancing fog. You can sit where an escaped slave sat, feel her terror and hope. You can trace your fingers along the words she carved into floors and walls: the proof of her existence. You can hear the rumblings of the railroad conductors, bringing her water or bread.

Likewise, you can put yourself in front of the Duncanson murals at the Taft. You can imagine the conviction it took for a young black man in pre-war America to take over a room like the one at the Taft. You can see the bravery as clearly as the talent. You can understand history, and the history of our city -- the threshold of a new freedom -- in a fresh light.

contact laura james: ljames(at)citybeat.com


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