Robert S. Duncanson’s ‘Landscape with Rainbow’: the Inauguration of Joe Biden 20th January 2021

President Biden’s Inauguration on Wednesday was an ecstatic moment for all of us who believe in the America he represents. His address – ‘Believe me, I get it!’ – came straight from a God-fearing all-American grandpa speaking straight to the gut in the blue-collar heartlands, calling on them to end the ‘to defend the truth and defeat the lies…. stop the shouting, lower the temperature… and end this uncivil war.’ I imagined every word shaving off a bit more support from his opponents, reminding them that this is what a President is meant to sound like, this is Government, this is patriotism. Duty, service, caring. The 45th President was gone, and with a world in which lackeys justified lies and self-seeking with dictator-speak phrases like ‘this is President Trump showing his love for this country.’ (I think that was Jenna Ellis in December.) In her speech Vice President Kamala Harris said, ‘Even in dark times we not only dream, we do.’ Amanda Gorman’s superb poem ‘The Hill We Climb’ ended with the words, ‘There is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.’ Either would be a good caption for the painting chosen by Dr Jill Biden the First Lady as a present for her husband, Landscape with a rainbow by Robert Seldon Duncanson (1821 – 1872), the first African-American artist to enjoy an international relationship in their lifetime.

Robert Seldon Duncanson (1821 – 1872), Landscape with a rainbow 1859 (c) Smithsonian American Art Museum.

In this painting a couple with a dog make their way towards a house at the end of a rainbow. The arcadian landscape is based on the landscape of Ohio where Duncanson lived and worked for much of his life. Landscape with a rainbow is interpreted as an expression of hope for the future, painted two years before the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. That decade the American press described Duncanson, a self-taught artist who began as an itinerant portraitist, as ‘the greatest landscape painter in the West’. But in 1863 he left America and went on a painting tour of Britain and then Canada, where he settled. He did not return to America until 1867, two years after the Civil War ended. Duncanson was the grandson of a former slave, and grew up as a free man, but he feared capture by the South and enslavement. Even in the North, with enlightened abolitionist patrons, he ran up against obstacles unfaced by white artists. His mother was unable to view his first public exhibition because she was black. She was philosophical. She said she knew what his painting looked like.

Daguerretype portrait of Robert S. Duncanson (c) Musee McCord – Montreal Museum of Social History

It reminded me of something Joe Biden said in November. He was chatting to journalists while the votes were still being counted in Pennsylvania, explaining what took him into political activism in the first place. In the early 1960s when he was still a student he had worked as a lifeguard at a country club. One of his fellow lifeguards, a black college athlete, asked him if he owned a jerrycan. Biden asked him why he needed one. His friend explained that he had a long drive to visit his aunt, and it wasn’t safe for him to use gas stations outside the city. Casual facts like this are as shocking as headline-grabbing cases. America has gone far since the 1860s, or the 1960s. There is far still to go, for America and elsewhere, but the Biden Inauguration marked the point when America decided to keep moving forward, because it believes that it is always possible.

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