This is a big one, readers. It’s our honor to debut Landscape with Rainbow, our newest limited-edition vintage print and our first from groundbreaking Black American artist Robert S. Duncanson. A lauded landscape painter active during the Civil War era, Duncanson has a life story that's inspiring in and of itself (we’ll dig into that a bit more below), but it’s his Landscape with Rainbow that’s been getting extra love as of late. That’s because this deeply symbolic, pastoral scene was chosen as the official inaugural painting, the first gift offered to President Biden following his inauguration a few weeks back. Senator Roy Blunt presented the President and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden—who selected the artwork herself—with the particularly poignant piece, on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It brought with it an air of renewal, reinforcing a sense of hope and promise that’s been stirring since election day. And speaking of elections: Through 2021, we’re donating 20% of sales of this print to Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight, to support their work promoting fair elections, fostering voter participation and education, and combating voter suppression around the country.
An archetypal example of Duncanson’s art, Landscape with Rainbow debuted in 1859 to great acclaim. One reviewer even called it “one of the most beautiful pictures painted on this side of the [Allegheny] mountains.” A rainbow—always an auspicious sign—arcs over a lilac sky, golden hour light illuminating the land while the sun begins to set in the horizon. It is a serene, bucolic scene, replete with rolling hills, a placid lake, lush grasses, and a few leisurely cows grazing on the fat of the land. A couple traverses the field, admiring the view, a dog at foot with his nose to the soil. At the end of the rainbow is a cottage, presumably the couple’s—a cozy resting spot nestled in a wood, warmed by a hearth that’s sending a drift of smoke through the chimney. A safe and happy home, you might infer, is the essence of this idyll.
The composition is organized along diagonals (a nod to the work of influential 17th century French landscapist Claude Lorrain) that subtly imbue depth and movement, keeping the eye enchanted. The emphasis is on the enveloping pleasure of the landscape, on beauty and harmony, this American utopia. This is where the historical context becomes particularly interesting. Painting rural America as a kind of paradise in the face of a brewing Civil War was a bold affirmation of hope, an embrace of the possibility of peace despite uncertainty—all the more so for a Black American like Duncanson. He was optimistic, despite it all. Only four years after he painted this piece, Duncanson fled with his family from Cincinnati to Montreal to seek a safer home during the Civil War. Landscape with Rainbow was a wish, the representation of what could be, of a tranquil, equal, abundant, and free future.
In his lifetime, Robert Seldon Duncanson became the first Black American artist to gain national and international renown, the best known Black artist in the country in the years surrounding the Civil War, and was widely considered the greatest landscape painter in the West. The grandson of a formerly enslaved Virginian, Duncanson was born in Fayette, New York in 1821. He relocated to Cincinnati at age 19, spurred by his artistic aspirations. At the time, Cincinnati was the largest and most prosperous city in the Midwest, a burgeoning cultural center particularly well-poised for landscape painting—the sylvan southernmost parts of the state made an excellent muse. By the 1850s, the city had also become an epicenter of abolitionist activity, home to a significant number of important members of the movement, many of whom were Duncanson’s patrons. (Read more about Duncanson’s life and career trajectory in Smithsonian Magazine, here.)
Duncanson became the preeminent artist in a group of Ohio River Valley landscape painters, exhibiting a style reminiscent of the Hudson River Valley School. And consistent with that school, Duncanson’s art often approached vistas as metaphors reflecting on American life and identity, carrying moral implications. Abolitionist concepts, for instance, typically expressed themselves through his work in metaphorical ways, in picturesque scenes imagining an alternate, war and strife-free America.
Following four years of a deeply destructive presidency, almost a year into a pandemic, and a mere month from the horrific, white supremacist riots at our capital, we’re again facing uncertainty. The inaugural painting is often chosen to coincide with the theme of the inauguration—this year, that’s “America United.” Landscape with Rainbow’s hopeful message, its visual prayer for a peaceful future, no doubt resonated with the First Lady when she hand-picked the piece. In the LA Times, art critic Christopher Knight writes “the deft choice spoke of a new administration with an insightful understanding of art’s potential power.” (Read more of Knight’s incisive analysis here.) “I like the rainbow—good things to follow,” the First Lady could be heard saying after the artwork’s presentation. Here’s hoping for good things.
With art for everyone,