This Historic American Painting Selected For The Biden Inauguration Conveys A Message

  • January 20, 2021 15:53

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Robert S. Duncanson, born Seneca County, NY 1821/22-died Detroit, MI 1872. Landscape with Rainbow. 1859. Oil on canvas, 30 x 52 1/4 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Leonard and Paula Granoff

The “inauguration painting” displayed at a reception inside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday delivered on a message of hope for peace just as the new administration was sworn in.

Incoming first lady Jill Biden and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) selected the painting as the official artwork for the swearing-in ceremony. Painted in 1859 by renowned Black artist Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872), "Landscape With Rainbow" features an idyllic American countryside under a rainbow.

As Christopher Knight writes for the LA Times, the work possibly echoes the famous Black spiritual, “Mary Don’t You Weep,” dating from the pre-Civil War era. Even before a storm--the Civil War was on the horizon--a rainbow, sign of hope, appears. From the song's chorus: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign; no more water, the fire next time.” 

On loan from the Smithsonian, the painting's gallery label reads:

Robert Seldon Duncanson was America’s best known African American painter in the years surrounding the Civil War. Based in Cincinnati, he was supported by abolitionists who bought his paintings and sponsored his trip to Europe to study from the Old Masters. In this pastoral landscape, a young couple strolls through fertile pastureland, toward a house at the end of a rainbow. The cattle head home toward the nearby cottage, reinforcing the sense that man lives in harmony with nature. 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.

Coming up, Master Drawings New York will host a panel discussion on Duncanson and other early American artists of color. Sign up for the event Artists of African & Mulatto Descent 18th to 19th Century, held Online via Zoom, Jan 29 @ 11:00 am – 12:00 pm, with details on the fair's Calendar.

Tags: american art

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