A closer look at Robert Duncanson, the Black landscape artist behind the inaugural painting presented to the Bidens
The first lady, who helped select the painting from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, pointed out the rainbow, an uncommon feature in antebellum landscape paintings, as a good omen. “I like the rainbow,” she said. “Good things to follow.”
Working in a nation on the edge of the action, Duncanson gazed at the landscape: tarnished by the displacement of Native Americans, cultivated on the backs of enslaved people and soon to be the scene of a bloody war. In it he found a rare, radical hope – it came as a gray rainbow, an elm tree symbolizing freedom, and an Edenic Valley scene.
A century and a half later, hope reappeared in the small miracle that his work – the first inaugural painting by a black artist – was exhibited in a room that had been desecrated by a Confederate flag bearer two weeks earlier.
Duncanson painted “Landscape with a Rainbow” when he lived on the edge of another America: in Cincinnati, across from the slave state of Kentucky. Duncanson’s low-key rainbow feels solid and unwavering, much like talk of healing from a leader who has experienced extraordinary personal loss or words about the prevailing democracy spoken on the steps of a recent insurrection. We trust those who have seen the worst when they believe in the better. Your experiential feelings carry weight.
The Duncanson landscape marks an obvious thematic departure from President Donald Trump’s controversial opening painting, The People’s Judgment. The 1855 painting by George Caleb Bingham is a crowded cartoon scene depicting a white electorate responding to a political victory by the Democratic Party, which at the time was defending slavery. In the foreground a black man is pushing a wheelbarrow.
But Duncanson’s work is also a more subtle ideological departure from the landscape paintings chosen in the past.
The first inaugural painting presented to President Ronald Reagan in 1985 – Jasper Francis Cropsey’s “Autumn – On the Hudson River” (1860) – portrayed “the raw power and grandeur of the landscape and the strength of human entrepreneurship,” the opening event of the Congress, a committee wrote at the time. Duncanson adopted the landscape genre to try and reach a more complicated ending. With tiny figures and enveloping valleys, his landscapes make no grandiose claim to the land justified by heaven. Instead, they humbly and humanely ask for a place in it.
“There’s this whole tradition of bombastic landscapes in which a Wagner aria goes on in the sky and in the mountains and storms,” says Eleanor Harvey, the curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, who helped Jill Biden choose Landscape With Rainbow “helped. “But not with Duncanson, Harvey says,” He seeks peace. “
In “Landscape with a Rainbow” you weave the diagonals in the foreground into the picture. Crisscrossing grass and gravel creates an uneven line of sight that makes you feel like you are in the woods. The hilly landscape – the cows driving home, a couple crossing a dirt road, the man pointing to the end of the rainbow – pull your gaze slightly to the right. Without a critical climatic focus, this is not a painting with an obvious conclusion. Under the trickling little waterfalls; sluggish way; The calming, unobtrusive rainbow encourages you to stay for a while.
Harvey refers to Duncanson landscapes such as “Loch Long” and “On the St. Annes, Eastern Canada” and praises their “therapeutic quality”. “These landscapes make you want to stop and just look, maybe have lunch, sit down and just stare at them,” she says.
This calm was in stark contrast to Duncanson’s reality. Born in Seneca County, New York, in 1821 to an African-American mother and Canadian father – a year after the Missouri Compromise divided the country into competing halves – his life spanned an era of instability and violent division.
He trained as a house painter where he was likely to come across fine art on his clients’ walls, and eventually taught himself by copying portraits and landscapes. At 19, Duncanson moved to Cincinnati, a growing arts and abolitionist center, where he saw works by Hudson River School painters such as Thomas Cole’s “The Voyage of Life,” which came for sale through the Western Art Union. He began painting fruits and portraits and eventually won a major contract to create murals for the home of wealthy banker Nicholas Longworth (now the Taft Museum). From an unlikely base away from the New York art world and on the soon-to-be Confederate border, Duncanson became the best-known African American artist in the United States.
His artistic endeavors were intertwined with anti-slavery causes, with many abolitionists as patrons. Hailed in the media – always with mention of his race – Duncanson’s artistic prowess was used to strengthen her cause against slavery.
Julie Aronson, curator at the Cincinnati Art Museum, notes that landscape painters often have moral attitudes embedded in their work.
“This can be related to politics, spirituality, and man’s relationship with nature,” she says. Images like Duncanson’s “Pompeii,” which depicts a decaying ancient city, “can be an indication of the decline of civilization and a moral lesson of what could happen if we continue down this path,” she says.
Some scholars argue that Duncanson intentionally incorporated abolitionist symbolism into his work by changing the content of the source material. When he painted “Cincinnati From Covington, Kentucky” based on a picture from a magazine, he added enslaved characters on the Kentucky side of the river. In another work, a copy of Frederic Church’s “Heart of the Andes,” he inserted a skirmish between Indians – another marginalized group – and American soldiers in an otherwise calm landscape.
But others are not convinced. Valerie Mercer, curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts, notes that when Duncanson was most directly involved with racial issues – in DIA’s Uncle Tom and Little Eva – reluctantly did so for a commission. In a letter to his son, the artist wrote: “Mark what I am saying here in black and white: I have no color in my brain, everything I have in my brain is color.”
Perhaps more overt references to race or politics in his work would have felt superfluous. The landscape itself was a place of refuge and violence, freedom and capture. It was political. Duncanson leaned into the calm of the landscape and quietly defied his difficult circumstances.
Like many of his works, the composition of “Landscape with a Rainbow” envelops you with its curved, concave valley and raised edges.
“It’s like you’re in a hug,” says Harvey. “It is not a landscape that you are fighting against. You’re not trying to climb the Rocky Mountains. You’re not going down the Niagara River hoping not to fly over the falls. This is not a threatening landscape. “
At a time when so many felt despised by those in power, the decision to highlight Duncanson’s work in the People’s House begins with the dawn of a new era.
“If there is one thing that speaks to Duncanson’s life,” says Harvey, “it is the idea of a landscape that welcomes you home.”