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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.
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.