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Arts & Culture

Painting by Historic Cincinnati Artist Part of Biden Inauguration

Robert Seldon Duncanson was America's best known African American painter in the years surrounding the Civil War.
Courtesy of The Smithsonian
Robert Seldon Duncanson was America's best known African-American painter in the years surrounding the Civil War.

A painting by Cincinnati artist Robert S. Duncanson was selected as the 59th Inaugural Painting. Duncanson is considered the most well-known African American artist of the Civil War era.

Landscape with Rainbow is an oil painting on canvas from 1859. It was presented to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris shortly after the two were installed during Wednesday's inauguration.

"Robert S. Duncanson is the first Black artist to rise to international acclaim in the United States and he did so in a time which was pre-Civil War, and for a Black man or a Black person or any person of color, that is quite remarkable, and quite, unfortunately, unusual," explains Sarah Ditlinger, senior manager of marketing and strategic engagement with the Taft Museum of Art.

Duncanson is well-known locally for his eight murals that grace the walls of the historic Taft House. They were commissioned by Nicholas Longworth, whom the Cincinnati Art Museum says recognized and fostered Duncanson's talent.

Though born in New York, he spent a lot of time in Cincinnati. Ditlinger says he's renowned for his real and imagined landscapes inspired by the Hudson River Valley style and his international travels "in a time in which he was actually not very welcomed here in the United States. So, it's quite poignant that his work is coming home to the White House today to dream and create a better future for us all."

You can find Duncanson's works at the Taft Museum of Art and the Cincinnati Art Museum. The Cincinnati Museum Center also has some of his works in its collection. The Taft Museum honors his legacy with its annual Duncanson Artist-in-Residence program.

"Today we are welcoming the first person of color (and) woman ... breaking the glass ceiling in a lot of different ways with Kamala Harris being elected as the VP but also as Dr. (Jill) Biden being the first lady, so I think the painting helps symbolize a lot of those choices and I think for the future of the country as well," says Ditlinger.

Landscape With Rainbow
The Smithsonian describes Landscape with Rainbow this way:

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.
The Smithsonian

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.

In presenting the painting to the new president and vice president on Inauguration Day, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt said he asked Jill Biden to help select the artwork and this is what she recommended.

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


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