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A Living Landscape of the Past

Between 1850 and 1852, Robert S. Duncanson (1821–1872) painted a series of eight landscape murals commissioned by horticulturalist and art patron Nicholas Longworth to decorate the entry hall of his home, now the Taft Museum of Art. Approximately 9 by 6 ½ feet each and painted directly on the plaster walls, this ambitious project launched Duncanson’s career.

Duncanson moved to Cincinnati from Michigan in 1840, resolved to become an artist. He taught himself by copying prints of European paintings and sketching from nature, initially earning a living by painting portraits. In the late 1840s, Duncanson devoted himself to landscape painting and eventually became the first Black artist to earn an international reputation. Duncanson even painted for Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom. Likely inspired by the Ohio River Valley, the Taft murals represent imagined landscapes rather than particular places.

After Longworth’s death, changing taste in interior design led to the murals being covered with wallpaper. They were restored before the Taft Museum of Art opened in 1932 and conserved again between 1994 and 2000. The murals are now recognized as the most significant pre–Civil War domestic murals in the United States and are one of the Taft Museum of Art’s largest artworks, second only to the house itself.

William Notman, Robert S Duncanson, 1864, Notman Archives, McCord Museum, McGill University, Montreal

William Notman, Robert S Duncanson, 1864, Notman Archives, McCord Museum, McGill University, Montreal



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Taft Chat

Discover one of the Taft's Top 10 artworks, the Duncanson Murals, with our associate curator, Tamera Lenz Muente. 

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FRAME | WORK blog | The Power of Art and Freedom

“Duncanson rarely represented his attitude toward slavery in his paintings. One exception isView of Cincinnati, Ohio from Covington, Kentucky. In it, he contrasted a Black man working with a scythe and a Black woman hanging laundry with a white man and child strolling in the countryside and other white Kentuckians lounging in the distance. The painting juxtaposes Covington’s agricultural setting with Cincinnati’s urban industry—commerce inextricably tied to the South.”

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Robert S. Duncanson, Uncle Tom and Little Eva, 1853, oil on canvas. Detroit Institute of Arts, Gift of Mrs. Jefferson Butler and Miss Grace R. Conover, 49.498

Robert S. Duncanson, Uncle Tom and Little Eva, 1853, oil on canvas. Detroit Institute of Arts, Gift of Mrs. Jefferson Butler and Miss Grace R. Conover, 49.498

Continuing the Legacy

The Duncanson Artist-in-Residence Program was established in 1986 to honor the achievements of contemporary Black artists working in a breadth of artistic disciplines. Each year, the Taft selects an artist to work directly with the public and with area schools.

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