Smithsonian Curator Reflects on Joe Biden’s ‘Poignant’ Inaugural Painting | Smart News
On Wednesday, Republican Senator Roy Blunt presented recently-inaugurated President of the United States, Joe Biden, a loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) specially exhibited for the occasion: Robert S. Dunscanson’s Landscape with a Rainbow, a landscape from 1859 littered with green fields with cows. At work, a small couple strolls through a lush landscape while the cattle quietly graze under a purple sky. A rainbow shimmers over them.
In a normal year, this “opening painting” would have served as the backdrop for the Senate’s inaugural dinner and as a symbol for the new government’s agenda. But the 59th opening ceremonies were far from normal: the traditional meal was canceled, attendance was limited, and all parties put on face masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The President and First Lady Jill Biden received the painting in the Capitol Rotunda – the same room that had been overtaken by an angry mob just two weeks earlier.
The First Lady helped select Landscape, which was returned to SAAM after the event. As senior curator Eleanor Jones Harvey says in an email, SAAM is one of the institutions that are typically asked to suggest artwork for the event. (According to Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post, the tradition is relatively new, dating back to Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985.) When the museum staff began creating a list of options, Duncanson’s work “was immediately on top of ours List, ”adds the curator.
Born in 1821, Duncanson was a mixed race painter who became one of the most successful African American artists of his generation. Although his 1859 scene seems to capture a peaceful moment, some elements suggest an “America on the verge of disaster,” as art critic Christopher Knight notes for the Los Angeles Times. In the golden light of the setting sun, night is approaching, causing the cows to move towards the safety of a farmhouse just visible in the background.
As Duncanson was painting Landscape, trouble was looming on the horizon. In 1863, four years after the creation of the work, the artist and his family fled from Cincinnati to Canada, where they hoped to escape the ongoing civil war and intensify racism against blacks. Despite the challenges ahead, Duncanson chose to fill the scene with a sense of optimism.
Robert Duncanson, Landscape with a Rainbow, 1859
(Smithsonian American Art Museum / Gift from Leonard and Paula Granoff)
Robert S. Duncanson, Vesuvius and Pompeii, 1870
(Smithsonian American Art Museum / Gift of Joseph Agostinelli)
Robert S. Duncanson, Loch Long, 1867
(Smithsonian American Art Museum / gift from Donald J. Shein)
“[The composition] brings with it an unmistakable glimmer of hope, ”writes the Los Angeles Times. “Rainbows usually appear after a storm, not before.”
Harvey describes the painting as “a poignant reminder that is on the verge of disintegration [Duncanson] hoped for the future. “
She adds, “I believe this message and the messenger addressed Dr. Biden.”
According to a digital exhibit from the Cincinnati Art Museum, Duncanson’s grandfather was a formerly enslaved Virginian. His parents moved from Virginia to New York, where their son was born. The young artist grew up as a painter and glazier for his family’s business.
Striving to prove himself in the fine arts, 19-year-old Duncanson moved to Cincinnati, a prosperous city that quickly became a hub for abolitionists, in 1840. Here, his fair skin allowed him “to walk a fine line, to acknowledge his legacy without flaunting it,” according to a SAAM blog post by Harvey.
Many of the people who commissioned the young painter’s work were abolitionists. Those sponsors included Nicholas Longworth, a wealthy philanthropist who hired Duncanson to cover the walls of his home with sweeping views in the style of the Hudson River School and traditional European landscape painting. Completed between 1850 and 1852 and now part of the collection of the Taft Museum of Art, these murals are “one of the most significant pre-Civil War murals in the United States,” according to the Cincinnati Museum website.
Duncanson’s paintings soon earned him an international reputation. Funded by an abolitionist group from Ohio, he went on a major European tour in 1853 and visited London, Paris and Florence to study the work of his artistic predecessors.
“I really believe Duncanson wanted his paintings to be in harmony with the recognized masters in the US and Europe,” art historian Claire Perry told Smithsonian Magazine’s Lucinda Moore in 2011.
According to Smithsonian, the ambitious painter’s letters from his overseas trips show “a reluctant confidence”.
“My trip to Europe has allowed me to some degree to gauge my own talent,” wrote Duncanson. “With all the landscapes I’ve seen in Europe (and I’ve seen thousands), I don’t feel discouraged … one day I’ll be back.”
Robert S. Duncanson’s 59th opening painting, Landscape with a Rainbow, is unveiled. pic.twitter.com/1w5E9mbvGF
– # Inaugural59 (@JCCIC) January 20, 2021
Though Duncanson focused on nature subjects in his paintings, he did not entirely eschew politics: in Cincinnati From Covington, Kentucky (circa 1851) Duncanson shows enslaved black people working in the fields of rural Kentucky in stark contrast to scenes of affluence and affluence Equality across the river in Ohio, according to the Cincinnati Art Museum.
In 1854, Duncanson worked with noted African American photographer James Presley Ball to create an anti-slavery panorama. The 600 meter wide panorama entitled Mammoth Pictorial Tour through the United States with views of the African slave trade traveled the country and showed the horrors of human bondage and the transatlantic slave trade with light and sound effects.
Duncanson exhibited Landscape With Rainbow in America with great public recognition. A contemporary reviewer praised the work as “one of the most beautiful images on this side of the [Allegheny] Mountains ”by SAAM.
When he returned to Europe in the second half of his life, Duncanson brought his most famous work, Land of the Lotus Eaters (1861), to the Isle of Wight, where he showed it to the poet Alfred Tennyson. Tennyson, whose poem “The Lotus Eaters” inspired the painting, was “thrilled” according to the Smithsonian.
At the height of his fame in the 1860s, Duncanson’s health began to deteriorate rapidly. The artist battled seizures and schizophrenia – likely the result of poisoning from a lifetime of working with lead paint, according to the Cincinnati Art Museum.
In 1867 the artist returned to the USA, where he settled in Detroit. He spent his last months in a sanatorium and died in December 1872 of unknown causes.
As Ryan Patrick Hooper reported for the Detroit Free Press in 2018, Duncanson’s grave in the historic Woodland Cemetery in Monroe, Michigan, remained unmarked until local residents campaigned for a memorial to be erected in his honor. The tombstone was unveiled in June 2019.
“As a free man of color who lived in Cincinnati – an abolitionist stronghold – Duncanson could be a successful artist,” says Harvey. “His decision to focus on landscape painting reflects the power of this genre to convey our cultural aspirations, and this composition fulfills the longing for peace and prosperity – the benefits of democracy – for all, regardless of race.”