“Landscape With Rainbow” (1859) by Robert Duncanson

 

SPEAKING TO BRIGHTER HORIZONS, a painting by Robert Duncanson played a special role in the Presidential Inauguration activities yesterday. “Landscape With Rainbow” (1859) was displayed in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, on loan for one day from the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). Duncanson is the first Black artist selected for the tradition that dates back nearly 40 years.

A pastoral landscape, “Landscape With Rainbow” features a luminous rainbow that disrupts the skyline lighting a path for two distant figures headed toward a house nestled in a dense forest area. The painting channels a hope for peace as the Civil War looms.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, “presented” the painting to President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris during a gift-giving ceremony that followed the official swearing in.

Congress ordinarily hosts a formal luncheon for the incoming President and Vice President and a specially selected painting is displayed behind the head table. This year’s lunch was canceled in December due to COVID-19 health and safety concerns, so the painting was incorporated into the gift presentation.

“Landscape With Rainbow” by Robert Duncanson is the first painting by a Black artist to be chosen for the inaugural tradition instituted by Congress in 1985.

“It’s sort of this classic America as a paradise painting that a lot of painters were doing then,” Blunt said. “But for him, as a Black artist painting this painting that is so much like an American utopia on the verge of a war that we would fight over slavery, it makes all of that, I think, even more interesting in that while he faced lots of challenges, obviously [he] was optimistic, even in 1859, about America.”

Alluding to a new chapter in American leadership, democracy, and governance, the symbolic gesture follows a calamitous presidency capped by an attempted insurrection carried out by an armed and violent pro-Trump mob swarming the Capitol on Jan. 6 and a second impeachment on Jan. 13.

Inaugural luncheons have been hosted by Congress since 1981. Beginning in 1985 with President Ronald Reagan’s second term, a painting has served as a backdrop to the event, chosen to reflect the historic moment and theme of the inauguration, which is “America United,” this year.

The chairman usually selects the painting. Blunt said the First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, helped make the decision. “I like the rainbow,” she said. “A rainbow is always a good sign,” Blunt replied.

“Landscape With Rainbow” is the first painting by a Black artist selected for the symbolic role. Duncanson was the best known African American painter of his time and was highly regarded for his landscape paintings which rivaled the work of his American and British counterparts. Born in Seneca, N.Y., he was active in Cincinnati beginning in the 1840s, traveled to Europe for the first time in 1853, gained recognition in the 1860s (shortly after he produced “Landscape With Rainbow”), and died in Detroit.

Congressional leadership also presented Biden and Harris with a few gifts they could keep: two flags that had flown over the Capitol during the swearing in moments earlier, framed photographs of the occasion, and large crystal vases from Lenox, a Bristol, Pa.-based glass company. CT

 


Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, “presented” a Robert Duncanson painting to President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. | Source: MSNBC

 

BOOKSHELF
A new volume “Race and Racism in Nineteenth-Century Art: The Ascendency of Robert Duncanson, Edward Bannister, and Edmonia Lewis” is forthcoming in July. “Robert S. Duncanson: Landscape Painter” is from a series about Black artists. Several earlier volumes are dedicated Robert Duncanson, including “The Emergence of the African-American Artist: Robert S. Duncanson 1821-1872,” “Robert S. Duncanson, 19th century Black romantic painter,” and “Robert S. Duncanson: A centennial exhibition,” a 1972 publication from the Cincinnati Art Museum. Duncanson is also featured in “6 Black Masters of American Art,” the classic by Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson.

 

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