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Frank Duveneck

Born in Covington in 1948, artist Frank Duveneck received training as a painter in Europe and brought his influence back to the Cincinnati area. He’s known for his style as a portrait artist.

“You can’t help but be impressed with the extraordinary finesse with which he handles paint,” says Julie Aronson, Curator of American Paintings at the Cincinnati Art Museum. “Everybody talked at the time of how they just watched him put a squiggle on a canvas and all of a sudden it turns into this brilliantly composed head. It was just so impressive. This also a wonderful sense of color. You look at these paintings and you think oh, that’s a dark painting, but then when you start looking carefully, you realize how subtle the relationships are between the colors.”

Duveneck showed artistic talent from a young age. He was an apprentice at German Catholic churches and traveled around the country with decorators who painted murals and did carvings for churches. His mentors encouraged him to travel abroad to study, and he made his way to the Munich Royal Art Academy.

“The piece of work by Duveneck that is most respected I think is the whistling boy which is in the Cincinnati Art Museum,” says James Ott, author of The Greatest Brush. “It’s a perfect example of European realism done with an American style.”

“I’m always amazed at how audacious it is,” says Aronson. “The hands kind of dissolved; they’re not really completely formed. They’re very sketchy. And of course everyone thinks he’s whistling but he’s really smoking.”

Duveneck returned to Germany in the late 1870s.

“He founded a school in Munich and that was the place to go because he was teaching realism,” says Ott. “One of his students in Munich was Elizabeth Boott, the textile heiress who was an expatriate and living in Europe.”

Boott invited Duveneck to come to Florence, Italy, and open a school there. He did, and the couple married and had a son in 1886. But Boott passed away in 1888 after contracting pneumonia in Paris. Duveneck was devastated.

“Elizabeth’s death short circuited Franck Duveneck’s art career,” says Ott. “But in a way, it brought a new dimension to it because he spent most of his artistic time working on her sarcophagus. The bronze version was installed over Elizabeth’s burial site in Florence, Italy. The first copy of that mold is in the art museum in Cincinnati.”

“After her death, he refocuses on teaching and that really becomes his most important activity and he becomes less ambitious as a painter,” says Aronson.

Duveneck started teaching regularly at the Cincinnati Art Museum around 1900 and remained in the area until his death in 1919 due to throat cancer. His legacy lives on in Cincinnati and in his artistic legacy around the world.

“He was interested in capturing the inner life of his subjects and in capturing things that weren’t necessarily pretty, but they have vitality to them,” says Aronson. “He did that through this vigorous brush work and confidence that he brought to his painting.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2403, which originally aired on October 20, 2018. Watch the full episode.