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

Ryan Patrick Hooper

There are 13 relatives buried in the Duncanson family plot at Historic Woodland Cemetery in Monroe, Michigan, but only two tombstones. Robert S. Duncanson will have a tombstone installed later this year after 146 years of waiting.

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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

Ellen’s Isle, Loch Katrine” was painted in 1871 by Robert S. Duncanson and is widely considered his masterpiece. It’s currently on display at the 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.

Image credit: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Aired on: CultureShift
About the Author

Ryan Patrick Hooper

Host, CultureShift

Ryan Patrick Hooper has worked as an arts and culture journalist in Detroit for over a decade.

hooper@wdet.org   Follow @hoopingtonpost

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