© 2024 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

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.

Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. The Dorothy C. Archibald and Thomas L. Archibald Fund and a fractional gift of E. Thomas Williams, Jr., and Auldlyn Higgins Williams /

Copyright 2021 New England Public Media

Jill has been reporting, producing features and commentaries, and hosting shows at NEPR since 2005. Before that she spent almost 10 years at WBUR in Boston, five of them producing PRI’s “The Connection” with Christopher Lydon. In the months leading up to the 2000 primary in New Hampshire, Jill hosted NHPR’s daily talk show, and subsequently hosted NPR’s All Things Considered during the South Carolina Primary weekend. Right before coming to NEPR, Jill was an editor at PRI's The World, working with station based reporters on the international stories in their own domestic backyards. Getting people to tell her their stories, she says, never gets old.