A little-known inaugural tradition Wednesday shone a spotlight on a Cincinnati-based artist who, like modern Americans, searched for hope in a time of seismic national conflict: Robert S. Duncanson, whom the Smithsonian American Art Museum describes as “America’s best-known African-American painter in the years surrounding the Civil War.”
Duncanson’s 1859 painting “Landscape with Rainbow” hung in the Capitol rotunda as President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden met Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt there Wednesday afternoon.
First lady Dr. Jill Biden picked it out for the occasion.
Normally, Blunt explained, a newly inaugurated president has a formal luncheon with Congress after their swearing-in, and a specially selected American painting hangs behind the president’s seat during the meal. The tradition began with Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985 and has persisted for the last 36 years; each time, the painting provides a unique glimpse into the political moment and the incoming administration.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the luncheon was replaced with a masked, socially distanced meeting between the Bidens and members of Congress. The painting hung between Blunt’s podium and the Bidens.
“Landscape with Rainbow” is a warm, bucolic pastoral scene that shows a couple walking through green countryside while cows graze around them and a rainbow arcs overhead.
“Duncanson’s vision of rural America as Arcadia, a landscape akin to paradise, is a characteristic feature of his work, a late hope for peace before the onset of Civil War,” according to the Smithsonian’s description of the work.
“While he faced lots of challenges, (Duncanson) was obviously optimistic, even in 1859, about America,” Blunt said.
Duncanson, the grandson of an emancipated slave, was born to a free Black family in 1821 and died in 1872, seven years after the end of the Civil War. He spent much of the intervening time in Cincinnati, then a major hub of art 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 landscape murals to adorn the walls of the historic home. After painstaking restoration, those murals can still be viewed by museum visitors today.
"At one point, those were unfortunately covered up with wallpaper, so by the time the Tafts came in here, they had never seen it. Today, after many restorations and removing the layers of wallpaper, that fortunately saved those for the future public today to admire and awe over them as well," said Sarah Ditlinger, the Taft's senior manager of marketing and strategic engagement.
Although he worked in many genres throughout his career, Duncanson found his passion in landscape painting and grew his skills with the help of abolitionist patrons. Their funding and advocacy allowed him to travel to Europe, where he studied the works of the Old Masters, and opened doors for his pieces to be displayed in galleries.
With that backing, Duncanson's travels across Europe also helped him avoid the perils of the Fugitive Slave Act in the U.S. But little else is known here about his personal life, something Ditlinger said the Taft team hopes to bring to light.
“We've had so many grand houses filled with this art, and now we've taken it from the Taft Historic House to the White House -- the biggest of all of them, the most national of all of them -- and it seems quite fitting for it to have been a Duncanson here in Cincinnati to go to Duncanson in D.C.," she said.
Many of his paintings are displayed in the Cincinnati Art Museum and viewable now on the museum’s website.
To see even more of Duncanson's work, a special display runs through this weekend at the Taft Museum, where his famous murals are a permanent fixture. Find more information here.