On January 20, 2021, President Joseph R. Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States with Kamala Harris becoming is Vice President. The day came with many gifts but, in particular, a painting that was presented to both President Biden and Vice President was a stunning Civil War-era painting by 19th-century artist, Robert S. Duncanson. In honor of Black History Month and the Presidential Inauguration, we’re celebrating the month of February with an exploration of this iconic artwork and the artist who made it.
Robert S. Duncanson
Duncanson was a Black abolitionist painter based in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was one of the most accomplished Black artists of the 1800s and was supported by many, especially by other abolitionists. He even did well enough as an artist to visit Europe to study the Old Masters.
An American newspaper called Duncanson “the best landscape painter in the West” in the 1860s. But Duncanson’s work was celebrated not only in America, but abroad in Canada, England, France, and Italy as well -- to name a few.
Furthermore, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) refers to Duncanson as “America’s best known African American painter in the years surrounding the Civil War.”
He was known for producing stunning landscapes of the Ohio River Valley and characteristically included people walking together in nature, touching on his belief that we are intrinsically connected with the landscapes in which we live.
Unfortunately, Duncanson’s personal life was filled with turmoil. As a biracial man born to an African-American woman and a Scottish-Canadian father, his emotional and mental health took a turn for the worst during the tumultuous Civil War era.
Still, he only painted of hope despite these harsh realities of prejudice in America in the 19th century. His striking resolve should inspire us all to remain hopeful for a better future.
“Landscape with Rainbow”
“Landscape with Rainbow” was gifted to the President and Vice President on a loan from the SAAM. It shows a rural pasture with a rainbow reaching across the horizon.
Dotted with cows and a vignette of a couple strolling through the grass, the painting was completed in 1859, only a few years before the outbreak of the Civil War.
The rainbow represents hope and ideals for a more peaceful future. These symbols mirror the messages of President Biden’s inauguration as the nation seeks a more unified country in the years ahead.
“Landscape with Rainbow” is not only an expression of hope, but it’s also a reminder that our nation has already gone through periods of fierce division. And although it has been destructive and painful, as seen especially in the Civil War era, unity has always prevailed.
The gift of “Landscape with Rainbow” to the President and Vice President seems to be a statement of this trust in unity. As the new administration aims to bring a divided country back together again, one can only hope for peace moving forward.