Painting from African American Cincinnati-Based Artist Featured at Inauguration
Photo: PBS News HourFollowing the inauguration of US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris this week, the spotlight was on a painting by a 19th-century artist who lived in Cincinnati.
For the traditional opening dinner on January 20, First Lady Jill Biden chose the exhibition “Landscape with a Rainbow” by Robert S. Duncanson, an African American artist who was very active in Cincinnati in the 1840s and 50s just before the Civil War.
Lunch has been a post-inauguration tradition since 1981 and involves the president and his family selecting a painting to decorate the wall in the National Statue Hall in the Capitol, where guests enjoy the festivities.
Duncanson completed “Landscape with a Rainbow” and in 1859 can represent a lot more than the eye of the Biden family and America, notices Eleanor Jones Harvey, curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museumwhere the painting is kept.
“[‘Landscape with a Rainbow’] reminds of the Covington / Cincinnati region, ”says Jones Harvey in a blog post about the piece and its effects. In the painting, Duncanson shows a couple walking through a lush, green landscape with cattle in the distance, but the focal point appears to be the rainbow peeking through the right corner.
Harvey says Duncanson painted “Landscape with a Rainbow” when social tensions rose and civil war loomed. “[He] presents this scene as a vision of future peace and prosperity regardless of race – a claim that we should all embrace, ”says Jones Harvey.
The Taft Museum of Art on Pike Street in Cincinnati has eight Duncanson landscapes commissioned by Nicolas Longworth in 1850. The museum used to be an apartment building, and Duncanson painted the murals for Longworth without knowing it stayed for hundreds of years. WatchTamera Muente, Associate Curator at Taft, will give a detailed lecture on these landscape images.Image of painting courtesy of americanart.si.edu
Muente tells CityBeat that she was thrilled to learn that Dr. Biden Duncanson’s work for lunch. “A lot of people in Cincinnati don’t really know about him,” she says. “The national attention is really exciting. Those of us who know about Duncanson and his work really want his story to be known. “
Duncanson lived in a time of turmoil and violence that led to the Civil War. However, his pictures often showed peaceful, natural beauty scenes.
“I think this could be one of the reasons why Dr. Biden chose the painting,” says Muente. “Here is someone who achieves something remarkable, an Afro-American artist who, despite all the adversities, paints such beautiful pictures at a time of great crisis.”
“It’s an example of the power of art and the power of beauty in these really difficult times,” she adds.
Duncanson was largely self-taught and the first African American artist to achieve an international reputation. He was born in New York, raised in Michigan, and traveled to Cincinnati to paint as a young man. Eventually, he was inspired to become a landscape painter after seeing the work of Thomas Cole.
The beauty of the Ohio River Valley fascinated the young artist, and many of his landscapes were based on the landscape around Cincinnati. Eventually he was able to travel to Europe, where he personally studied master paintings and met other artists like him. He returned to Cincinnati for a short time but fled in 1863 at the start of the Civil War.
During this time, however, he was more than a refugee. Duncanson traveled to Montreal, the UK and Scotland and used his absence as an opportunity to further develop his skills. He sold paintings to the King of Sweden and even met Queen Victoria.
Duncanson’s legacy lives on in Cincinnati today. In 1986, the Taft Museum of Art established Duncanson’s Artist-in-Residence program. It was created to honor contemporary black artists. “The selected artist works directly with the public and local schools every year,” says the artist-in-residence page.
Learn more about Duncanson on the Taft Museum of Art website.