Frank Duveneck (born Frank Decker) was raised in a working-class German-Catholic immigrant family in Cincinnati. In his teens, Duveneck was apprenticed to two German-American artisans who decorated Catholic churches throughout the Midwest. Showing promise, Duveneck was encouraged by his community in Cincinnati to study, not in Paris or New York, but in Munich. Between 1870 and 1873, Duveneck distinguished himself at the Royal Academy in Munich, winning prizes and mastering the bravura brush technique practiced by the Munich school. The psychologically-penetrating portrait paintings produced during those years, such as Portrait of a Boy (1872), Whistling Boy,and The Cobbler’s Apprentice (1877) are characterized by expressive brush strokes, and a dark and brooding background dominated by browns and blacks. Even though Duveneck paintings appear effortless and spontaneous, the figures have a sculpted density and impart a vivid and pulsing presence.
On Duveneck’s return to Cincinnati, his painting developed along more publicly-accepted academic lines; his style and technique, though still based on his Munich background, became somewhat tighter and more conservative. In 1877, Duveneck returned to Munich to teach, and he was a celebrated figure there. Duveneck had earned the respect of Boston’s sophisticated art community through an exhibit of his compelling portrait paintings there in 1875. In Cincinnati, Duveneck had also attracted a group of young and talented German-American students who followed him to Munich. Otto Bacher, Joseph DeCamp, John Twachtman, and Theodore Wendel, were among the first group to travel to Munich with Duveneck. Duveneck was an exuberant, enthusiastic and involved teacher, guiding his young students (who became known as the "Duveneck Boys") to the many art treasures of Venice and Florence, and other European capitals, as well as to his many acquaintances and friends in Europe, including James A. M. Whistler.
Duveneck’s powerful influence on the course of American art extended through his first group of American students to the next generation. Otto Bacher, Joseph DeCamp, John Twachtman, and Theodore Wendel all became teachers themselves, and through them, Duveneck’s influence was extended to artists such as George Bellows, Robert Henri, and Edward Potthast.
In 1889 Duveneck’s life changed dramatically. After the early death of his beloved wife, and Duveneck returned to America and devoted his life to teaching at various institutions in Cincinnati, most notably the Cincinnati Fine Arts Academy. At this time Duveneck paintings changed as well. In the 1890s, Duveneck produced a stunning series of Impressionist-inspired paintings. Little Girl in Red Dress (ca. 1890) is an example of Duveneck’s shift from his low-keyed palette to a high-keyed one permeated with color and light. Duveneck loosened his reliance on academic conservatism, and regained his strength in gestural and expressive brushstrokes, as well as his deep psychological insight. Wistfulness, vulnerability, and innocence, form the matrix of the mood in this powerful Duveneck painting.