Robert Scott Duncanson (1821 – December 21, 1872) was born in Seneca County, New York in 1821. Duncanson’s father was a Canadian of Scottish descent and his mother was an African American, thus making him “a freeborn person of color.” Duncanson, an artist who is relatively unknown today, painted America, both physically and figuratively, at a time when the country was in turmoil. Beautiful and serene, Duncanson’s work sheds light on American art that has been forgotten over the years.
As a young boy, Duncanson lived with his father in Canada, while his mother lived in Mount Pleasant, Ohio, a village fifteen miles (24 km) north of Cincinnati. It was not until the summer of 1841 that Duncanson left Canada for Mount Pleasant. Upon his return to his mother’s home, Duncanson said, “I’ve come back to be an artist.” Yearning to do more with paint than use it on houses, as he had been doing since 1838 with his house painting and decorating venture, he moved to Cincinnati, which seemed to be the right place. Around this time period, Cincinnati was “known as the Athens of the West.” Although Duncanson possessed the drive and determination to be an artist, he received no technical training. Instead, “determined to break into the exclusively Caucasian art community [. . . he] taught himself art by painting portraits and copying prints.” Duncanson’s determination paid off with a long career that was active until his death in 1872. During his lifetime Duncanson married twice and had three children, Reuben, Milton, and daughter Bertha. Robert Duncanson’s life and career took him around the globe and back again.