Covington’s Frank Duveneck Gets His Due at the Cincinnati Art Museum

A new exhibition at CAM takes a look at Frank Duveneck and aims to elevate him from local hero to his rightful place in the art world.

Cincinnati Art Museum’s current Frank Duveneck: American Master retrospective would seem to have little need to dig up anything new about the esteemed Covington native. Born to German-immigrant parents, he and his career flowered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and he’s often been called this city’s most important artist. A respected Art Academy of Cincinnati teacher as well, he died in 1919 at age 70.

Illustration by Gabriel Ippoliti

But, really, the ideas behind this show are anything but complacent. It attempts to shake the cobwebs off of Duveneck’s reputation, which isn’t as prominent nationally and internationally as it is here. As American Fine Art Magazine presents it in a recent cover story, “A new Frank Duveneck exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum reinstates the artist alongside many of the American greats.”

“We’ve had years of looking at American art through a social lens, but that had not really been done with Duveneck to the extent I felt it could be,” says CAM’s Curator of American Paintings, Sculpture, and Drawings Julie Aronson, who organized the show. “He was very much his own individual and doing things that were very exciting and different.”

This exhibit reviews his long career, featuring approximately 125 oil paintings, drawings, watercolors, pastels, etchings, monotypes, and sculptures—90 or so from the museum’s own permanent collection. There are also a few works by his peers, including wife Elizabeth Boott Duveneck, and students. “Our collection of Duveneck’s works on paper is rarely on display, and we’re also pulling a lot of paintings from storage and from galleries to present them in a different way and context and [alongside] ones on loan,” says Aronson. CAM’s last comparable Duveneck exhibit was in 1987–1988.

Frank Duveneck: American Master has been extended through May 9 at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Check for updates at cincinnatiartmuseum.org.

The artist spent key years in the 1870s studying, painting, and teaching in Munich and nearby Polling, Germany, and they get a reappraisal here. A good example can be seen via his best known works locally, CAM’s own 1872 The Whistling Boy and the Taft Museum of Art’s 1877 The Cobbler’s Apprentice. With his energetic brush strokes, Duveneck depicted these two working boys as tough and preternaturally mature. They’re together in this show, along with another “boy,” the privately owned He Lives by His Wits (1878).

These images rankled at first. In a startling catalogue essay, “A Dangerous Class of Painting: Ugliness, Masculinity, and the Munich Style in Gilded Age America,” Indiana University Art History Professor Emerita Sarah Burns argues that Duveneck’s work of the 1870s often was too much for Americans at the time. “Tough street kids clearly had no connection to American life at all beyond the nationality of their creators,” she writes. “[But] Munich’s beggars and ragamuffins called to mind the criminals and guttersnipes of New York and other big American cities just at a time of extreme class conflict and social upheaval.”

Duveneck’s boys still have a controversial element today, partly because they smoke. (Whistling Boy is a smoker, Aronson says, although it’s hard to see.) “It’s something that somebody might find disturbing, which I don’t think would be a main concern at that time,” she says. “It gives these kids an edge. They weren’t children playing badminton on the lawn.”

Burns’s essay also explains how Duveneck’s unsentimental portrayals of older men, such as The Old Professor (1871), took viewers aback. He showed them in front of black backgrounds—themselves symbols of the artist’s daring—that seem to hide life’s approaching deadly storms. Even those who praised him at the time, like the author Henry James, struggled with the work’s scary masculine impact at a time when art was supposed to be “feminine,” meaning not ugly.

The portraits of the men represented, Burns writes, a “cult of ugliness that seemed to characterize the brash new realism” and show how Duveneck shook up the status quo—one more reason he should be regarded today as a trendsetter of his time.

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