Landscapes by artist Robert S. Duncanson left astonishing mark and important legacy for Cincinnati

The Robert S. Duncanson Society was formed by several Cincinnati Black art enthusiasts and leaders including the late Doris Rankin Sells, the late William Joel McCray, and Ruth K. Meyer to affirm an ongoing Black presence within the structure of the Taft Museum of Art. The Society is named for Robert Seldon Duncanson, the first internationally acclaimed Black American artist who left his mark on Cincinnati in the 1850s. Inspired by the legacy of Duncanson, the founding Society members helped to establish the Taft’s annual Duncanson Artist-in-Residence program, sharing with Cincinnati nationally esteemed Black artists. Each year since the residency’s inception in 1986, the Society has been a driving force in strengthening the artistic fabric of our city and nation.  
With a growth in membership and collaborative support from the Society and the community, Duncanson’s legacy is primed for its biggest milestone to date. Beginning in spring 2024, in addition to the annual two-week-long Duncanson Artist-in-Residence, the Taft Museum of Art will launch a year-round art outreach program. This will lend additional opportunities for the Society to contribute their advice, support, and expertise. 

“Our Duncanson Society has served as an important part of our art community,” said Dora George, a long-time Duncanson Society member. “I have been a member for over ten years and the Society has served as a much-needed entity, continuing to further the legacy of Robert S. Duncanson and also moving to help promote diversity in the community.” 

Duncanson Society Members, Quiera Levy-Smith and Dora George with 2023 Duncanson Artist-in-Residence, Anita Graef (cellist) photo Taft Museum of Art

Despite the turmoil that the United States faced in the mid-nineteenth century, before, during and after the Civil War—several Black artists achieved success and even celebrity. This was especially difficult during this time as Black Americans were up against diminished opportunities, low societal expectations and routine racial prejudice and violence. However, some succeeded in developing relationships with collectors, patrons, and institutions along with significant profits.  

Robert S. Duncanson began to make his mark on Cincinnati in the 1840s and 50s. Around 1850-52, Duncanson was commissioned to paint eight landscape murals with trompe l’oeil frames in the foyer of Nicholas Longworth’s home. Longworth was a Cincinnati entrepreneur, philanthropist and arts patron born into poverty but died one of the wealthiest people in America. His home is now the Taft Museum of Art where the murals still stand as prominent fixtures in the museum’s collection. 

Duncanson was hailed as “the best landscape painter in the West” in an 1861 review by the Daily Cincinnati Gazette and described by the Smithsonian American Art Museum as “perhaps the most accomplished African American painter in the United States from 1850 to 1860.”

Duncanson left an astonishing mark on American art. Duncanson’s accomplishments and the historic significance of his murals were recognized in 2003 by the Ohio Historical Society and designated as a National Historic Landmark. 

Duncanson’s art was appreciated in his day, but today, his reputation is expanding rapidly and returning to the forefront as an important contributor to the American art history canon. On the heels of the murals’ 175th anniversary, the educational program in Duncanson’s name seeks to expand support for Black and Brown American painters, photographers, musicians, dancers, authors, poets, and other artists from across the country.   

“I first became acquainted with the Duncanson Society at the Taft Museum of Art when I became the Duncanson Artist-in-Residence program coordinator in 2000,” said Quiera Levy-Smith, another current member of the Duncanson Society. “It was the year when the Dayton Contemporary Dance Second Company was selected for the residency. That was the first time that I was exposed to the outstanding liaison work the Duncanson Society was doing on behalf of Cincinnati’s Black arts community.”  

“The Duncanson Society took their roles to heart,” said Levy-Smith. The Duncanson Society was one of the first organized groups of ambassadors seeking to “be a voice for Black art here in Cincinnati and worked with the Taft Museum of Art to support Black excellence by being a bridge to the Black community.”

Over the years, the Duncanson Artist-in-Residence program has drawn the names of many nationally and internationally acclaimed artists spanning an array of disciplines such as visual and performance artists Vanessa German, choreographer Stafford Berry, and poet Nikki Giovanni who was the inaugural Duncanson Artist-in-Residence in 1986. 

2024 Duncanson Artist-in-Residence, Tunde Wey (chef) photo credit: Jonathon Peterson

For the program’s next residency in spring 2024, the Taft Museum of Art announced the selection of internationally acclaimed culinary artist Tunde Wey. Wey stood out among a number of exceptional national and local culinary artists who submitted applications for the residency not only because of his culinary prowess, but because he is also an established educator who has been nationally recognized for his integration of social change into his culinary art. The dates for Wey’s residency with the museum will be April 13-27, 2024.  

The Taft Museum of Art thanks each of the current and past members of the Duncanson Society for bringing enthusiastic dedication to the promotion of Black art in Cincinnati. To honor this mission, the museum continues to strengthen the Duncanson Society by adding new members to increase the diverse artistic stewardship and advocacy in our region.

Arts and culture reporting has been made possible with support from The Taft Museum of Art
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Read more articles by Kareem A. Simpson.

Raised in the inner city of Covington, Kentucky, Kareem Simpson is an author, innovator, community enthusiast, military veteran, serial entrepreneur, foodie and lover of all things creative.