This painting, a piece of Cincinnati history, welcomes Bidens to the Capitol
A little-known Wednesday opening tradition highlighted a Cincinnati-based artist who, like modern Americans, sought hope in a time of seismic national conflict: Robert S. Duncanson, whom the Smithsonian American Art Museum calls “America’s Best.” famous Afro-American painter in the years around the Civil War. “
Duncanson’s painting “Landscape with a Rainbow” from 1859 hung in the Capitol rotunda when President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden met Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blunt there on Wednesday afternoon.
First Lady Dr. Jill Biden picked it for the occasion.
Usually, Blunt explained, a newly-inducted president has a formal lunch with Congress after he is sworn in, and a specially selected American painting hangs behind the president’s seat during dinner. The tradition began with Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985 and has been around for 36 years. Each time the painting offers a unique glimpse into the political moment and in-depth administration.
However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, lunch has been replaced with a masked, socially distant meeting between the Bidens and members of Congress. The painting hung between Blunt’s podium and the Bidens.
“Landscape with a Rainbow” is a warm, bucolic pastoral scene that depicts a couple walking through green landscapes while cows graze around them and a rainbow curves over them.
“Duncanson’s vision of rural America as Arcadia, a paradisiacal landscape, is a defining feature of his work, a late hope for peace before the outbreak of the civil war,” is the description of the work by Smithsonian.
“While faced with many challenges, (Duncanson) himself was obviously optimistic about America in 1859,” said Blunt.
Duncanson, the grandson of an emancipated slave, was born into a free black family in 1821 and died in 1872, seven years after the end of the Civil War. He spent much of his time in Cincinnati, then an important center for the arts and commerce in the expanding United States.
At the Taft Museum of Art, when the patron Nicholas Longworth lived there, Duncanson was commissioned to paint idyllic landscapes to adorn the walls of the historic home. After careful restoration, these murals can still be viewed by museum visitors today.
“Unfortunately, they used to be covered with wallpaper, and when the Tafts came here they had never seen them. Today, after many restorations and the removal of the wallpaper layers, they luckily saved them for the future public to admire and admire too.” said Sarah Ditlinger, senior manager of marketing and strategic engagement at Taft.
Although working in many genres throughout his career, Duncanson found his passion in landscape painting and advanced his skills with the help of abolitionist patrons. Their funding and advocacy enabled him to travel to Europe, where he studied the works of the old masters and opened doors for his pieces to be exhibited in galleries.
With this assistance, Duncanson’s travels across Europe also helped him avoid the dangers of the Fugitive Slave Act in the United States. Little is known about his personal life, however, which Ditlinger says the Taft team would like to bring to light.
“We’ve had so many great houses filled with this art, and now we’ve moved them from the Taft Historic House to the White House – the largest of them all, the most national of them all – and it seems pretty fitting that there should be a Duncanson was here in Cincinnati to go to Duncanson, DC, “she said.
Many of his paintings are on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum and are now on view on the museum’s website.
To see more of Duncanson’s work, a special exhibition is running this weekend at the Taft Museum, where his famous murals are an integral part. More information can be found here.