One of the loveliest Inauguration rituals is the presentation of a painting to the new President, borrowed from the Smithsonian collection to set a tone for a fresh administration. Today’s selection was made by First Lady Jill Biden, who chose Landscape with Rainbow by Robert S. Duncanson, the most celebrated African-American artist of the mid-nineteenth century. Born in New York and based in Cincinnati, Duncanson was active in the struggle against slavery. As a black man navigating a culture of white dominance, he was familiar with the divisive tensions of American society. Yet in his paintings he depicted his country as a peaceful and harmonious paradise. By painting a more perfect Eden, he nourished a vision of hope.
In Landscape with Rainbow, the storm is over. In the clearing sky, a rainbow offers the biblical promise of a redemptive future. Painted in 1859, on the eve of the Civil War, Duncanson’s landscape sees a light beyond the present darkness. Explaining the reason for choosing this work, Dr. Biden said, “I like the rainbow—good things to follow.”
A year after Duncanson’s Arcadian picture of joyful calm, Frederic Edwin Church painted a very different atmosphere, Twilight in the Wilderness (1860). His agitated, bloody sky, applying vivid new cadmium pigments, seemed to augur the apocalyptic battles to come. It was twilight in America—dark things followed.
When I saw Duncanson’s landscape unveiled today in the Capitol rotunda, its peaceful luminosity reflected the sense of relief and hope most of us are feeling today after 4 years of dispiriting storms. We pray the darkness which swirled in that same rotunda a fortnight ago can be dispelled. Still, I couldn’t help thinking about Church’s Twilight.
I have always loved Church’s painting. It’s an exuberant celebration of American wilderness, and scholars resist literalizing it into a prophecy of war. But for me, on a purely sensory and emotional level, the contrast between Duncanson’s rainbow and Church’s dying day captures the essence of this pivotal American moment. Asked to choose between rainbow and twilight, we chose the brighter thing.
May it ever be so.