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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 African American 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.

 

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

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