Alongside two U.S. flags and a pair of commemorative vases, newly swornin President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris received an artwork as a gift: Robert S. Duncanson’s Landscape with Rainbow, an 1859 painting on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in Washington, D.C. Roy Blunt, a Republican senator from Missouri, called the work “a good sign” as he presented it to Biden and Harris at their inauguration on Wednesday, January 20, 2021.
Duncanson was among the most lauded Black artists in the U.S. in the years around the Civil War, having accrued a reputation for his lush landscapes done in the mode of Thomas Cole. The Cincinnati-based painter was known, among other things, for his abolitionist political views, which often figured in his landscapes in metaphorical ways. Many of his paintings envision peaceful vistas that could be seen as alternate visions of a conflict-free country.
Landscape with Rainbow features a rainbow arcing over a verdant idyll that has been seemingly untouched by humankind. Below the rainbow, a man and a woman gaze at its beauty as a dog sniffs at the land around them. The painting is characteristic of much of his art, representing a vision of the U.S. as a paradise-like Arcadia—“ a late hope for peace before the onset of Civil War,” according to SAAM’s website—and bearing out a message of unity that was echoed in Biden’s campaign speeches, as well as his inaugural address and Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem.
Although Duncanson has been well-known to historians for well over a century, he and his work have rarely been given major recognition outside Ohio. Until 2018, he did not even have a tombstone.
“While he faced lots of challenges, he was optimistic, even in 1859, about America,” Blunt said as he thanked Jill Biden, the First Lady, for helping him select the work.