Buried & Forgotten: Why Did This Groundbreaking Black Artist Disappear from Local History?

Laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Monroe, Michigan for 146 years, 19th century landscape painter Robert S. Duncanson is finally getting his tombstone — and his due.

Ryan Patrick Hooper

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Raised in Michigan, Robert S. Duncanson is considered the first famous African-American artist in the 19th century.

Duncanson grew up in Monroe the freeborn son of house painters and carpenters before moving to Cincinnati where a network of mainly white abolitionist supporters helped exhibit his work throughout the Midwest and abroad — an astonishing feat in antebellum America when many African-Americans were still enslaved.

That didn’t stop him, however, from ending up in an unmarked grave in Monroe, Michigan’s Historic Woodland Cemetery when he died in 1872 — the unfortunate fate that awaited many African-Americans of Duncanson’s era.

Now, a local group of artists have raised money to get Duncanson a tombstone after 146 years of being buried without one. His work hangs in the Detroit Institute of Arts today — including his 1871 masterpiece “Ellen’s Isle, Loch Katrine” (pictured below) — where the tombstone will be unveiled later this year.

Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts

But why was Duncanson — a landmark Michigan artist who pioneered a path to success for other African-American artists in the 19th century — relegated to an unmarked grave?

The answer lies in the larger problem with preserving works by African-American artists of the antebellum era and with how art history is taught today, says DIA curator Valerie Mercer, who heads the museum’s General Motors Center for African-American Art.

“Like with a lot of artists, if they don’t have someone or generations of people working on their history, they can kind of disappear from the story,” says Mercer.


  • Ryan Patrick Hooper
    Ryan Patrick Hooper is the award-winning host of "In the Groove" on 101.9 WDET-FM Detroit’s NPR station. Hooper has covered stories for the New York Times, NPR, Detroit Free Press, Hour Detroit, SPIN and Paste magazine.