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Painting By 19th Century Black Artist Chosen For Inauguration 'A Nod To Healing'

A presentation of art was among the many moments in Washington during Wednesday’s presidential inauguration.

During non-pandemic inaugurations, a specially selected painting would have hung behind the head table at a traditional welcome luncheon for President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Instead, U.S. Senator Roy Blunt – chair of the inauguration committee – stood next to a temporary wall in the U.S. Capitol where an oil painting hung.

Blunt addressed a small, socially distant crowd and presented a 19th century landscape, chosen to reflect the theme of the day, "Our Determined Democracy: Forging A More Perfect Union."

“The painting is ‘Landscape with Rainbow,’” said Blunt, a Missouri Republican. “The artist, Robert ... Duncanson — he was the best-known African American painter in the years surrounding the Civil War.”

The landscape is of a young couple strolling through a pasture toward a house at the end of a rainbow. It was painted in 1859, just before the war. 

“For him, a Black artist, painting this painting that's so much like an American utopia on the verge of a war that we would fight over slavery makes all of that, I think, even more interesting,” Blunt said. 

U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (left), speaking about the painting to President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden.
Credit Screen shot / PBS
U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (left), speaking about the painting to President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden.

“Duncanson was an incredibly talented painter,” said Erin Monroe, a curator of American paintings and sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, where anotherpainting by Duncanson hangs.

Monroe said Duncanson’s landscapes — like others in 19th century America — symbolically depict a young country trying to find its identity. But Duncanson also painted portraits of abolitionists.

“Certainly that confirms his participating and being perhaps a leader in a sort of fight, perhaps cultural and political, for a more equal and unsegregated life,” Monroe said.

But the Civil War made it increasingly difficult for Duncanson to feel comfortable in Cincinnati, where he lived. By 1863, he moved with his family to Montreal.

Art of the past can tell us something about the present, Monroe said. Blunt and first lady Jill Biden’s choice of ”Landscape with Rainbow” was completely timely for the inauguration.

“These divides are still prevalent. They were equally if not more divisive during the Civil War,” Monroe said. “[The choice of the painting] is a nod to some sort of healing and coming together.”

Duncanson’s painting was on a short-term loan, just for the inauguration. It will be back at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art by Monday.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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