Hammonds House has the oldest painting by Biden’s inaugural artist

The origin of mother-daughter painting is well recognized by art historians. But how Hammonds House got the chance to acquire the painting began more than 40 years ago, when Duncanson’s reputation as a pioneering American painter was all but forgotten.

Duncanson was born in New York in 1921 and moved his family to a small town in Ohio just outside of Cincinnati when he was about 19 years old. It is believed that he was largely self-taught as a painter, although he studied in Europe for brief periods in later years. But in those early Ohio years when the state was seen as a free state of legal slavery, Duncanson began his career. “Portrait of a Mother and Daughter” is an example of the type of Limner portraits made by traveling artists at the time who were essentially portrait painters who were hired.

“In the 1840s, it was typical for artists to pre-paint the figures or bodies and then add the heads to the bearing bodies and let customers choose which body and dress they would add their heads to,” Sipp said.

The Hammonds House painting is an example of this. Duncanson later became a skilled landscape painter. The Ohio Valley has been a common theme for its beauty, but also for what the state of Duncanson and many African Americans might have symbolized. Sipp said there’s a belief that Duncanson sometimes encodes his images with references to freedom, such as a rainbow that symbolizes hope or a river that represents freedom to cross.

Dr. Otis Thrash Hammonds knew this story was going. He bought a huge Victorian house on Peeples Street in Atlanta in the late 1970s. The anesthetist had amassed an art collection of more than 250 works by African American artists such as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. The house was supposed to be a showcase for the collection and he set about renovating it. Sometime between the fall of 1979 and the spring of 1980, Hammonds bought the Duncanson portrait. It is not known what he paid for it at the time. It should be one of his shop windows.

But Hammonds died in 1985 and was never given the opportunity to fully realize his plan to turn his home into one of the best collections of black art in town. But when the leaders of the Atlanta Black Arts community teamed up and enlisted the help of Fulton County to turn the house into a museum, Hammond’s vision took shape. Duncanson’s portrait would finally be on view.

“We took the placement and put it in the Green Room, which was the second room on the right,” said Ed Spriggs, founding curator and director of Hammonds House. “We put it over the fireplace because it was kind of a family-like painting.”

Hammonds House is closed to the public due to the pandemic and the Duncanson painting is now in storage.

In 1996, for the Olympic Games, the museum co-sponsored a trip through Duncanson’s work, Sipp said. But over time, the artist’s work and legacy disappeared from the public eye. Then came the day of the inauguration. Jill Biden chose the 1859 Landscape, which is part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“I like the rainbow,” said the first lady through her mask.

“The rainbow is always a good sign,” replied Blunt.

The Hammonds House Museum has the oldest painting by Biden’s founding artist Robert Seldon Duncanson.

Photo credit: Kirk Kingsbury

Photo credit: Kirk Kingsbury

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