Why Jill Biden chose a Civil War-era painting by Robert S. Duncanson as an inauguration gift

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Robert S. Duncanson, Landscape with Rainbow (1859). Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Robert S. Duncanson, Landscape with Rainbow (1859). Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
  • With every inauguration, a painting is displayed at the luncheon that follows the ceremony.
  • Chosen by incoming first lady Jill Biden and presented by Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, the inaugural painting is by 19th century landscape artist Robert S. Duncanson.
  • Titled Landscape With Rainbow, the work depicts a pastoral scene.

With every inauguration, a painting is meant to be displayed at the luncheon that follows the swearing-in ceremony.  However this year, the luncheon was cancelled as President Biden took a private meal before retreating to his new office to start his four-year journey.

Instead of a luncheon, the inauguration painting, owned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, was displayed at a reception to commemorate the ceremony at the Capitol.

US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden a
US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden are presented with a painting from US Senator Roy Blunt. (Photo by Win McNamee/ Pool/ AFP via Getty Images)

Chosen by incoming first lady Jill Biden and presented by Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, the work is a large painting by 19th century landscape artist Robert S. Duncanson.

Duncanson was born of a Scottish father and Black mother in New York. Supported by abolitionists, he travelled to France to refine his craft as a painter by studying the ways of the Old Masters. When he returned to America his work began using landscapes in Cincinnati, Detroit, and Montreal as metaphoric messengers. 

According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Duncanson was considered "the best known African American painter in the years surrounding the Civil War".

Robert S. Duncan was considered the best known Afr
Robert S. Duncan was considered the best known African American painter in the years surrounding the Civil War. (Wikimedia Comms)

Titled Landscape With Rainbow, the 1859 work depicts a pastoral scene sporadically decorated with vegetation, cows and people under a rainbow meant to symbolise renewal and hope. 

Made in 1859, the painting was made two years before the Civil War that, in its end, resulted in the Confederacy’s collapse and the legislative abolishment of slavery. According to Senator Blunt the painting was a fitting gift for the Bidens considering the political turmoil they had just endured as well as the potential of the days ahead. 

Below are some of Duncanson other works. 

On the St. Annes, East Canada (1863–65)
On the St. Annes, East Canada (1863) Robert S. Duncanson.
Landscape with Sheep. Robert S. Duncanson
Landscape with Sheep. Robert S. Duncanson
Untitled (Landscape). Robert S. Duncanson
Untitled (Landscape). Robert S. Duncanson
Mountain Pool, 1870. Robert S. Duncanson. Courtesy
Mountain Pool, 1870. Robert S. Duncanson. Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum
Vulture and Its Prey (1844). Robert S. Duncanson
Vulture and Its Prey (1844). Robert S. Duncanson
Mount Oxford (1864). Robert S. Duncanson
Mount Oxford (1864). Robert S. Duncanson

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