Landscape with Rainbow blog cover
Art History

Landscape With Rainbow

By now you’ve probably listened to the moving words by Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, engaged in a game of real life Where’s Waldo with Bernie and his Mittens throughout your social media feeds, and enjoyed the monochronic fashions of the day.  The arts definitely continue to be a big part of the conversation from this Wednesday’s Inauguration Day.  What a historic day in so many ways!

On today’s blog, I thought I would share something that I haven’t seen as many people talking about – and it even has ties it has back to the Finger Lakes Region of New York!

Did you know that there is a tradition during the Inaugural Luncheon that Congress hosts at the Capitol where a special painting is selected to be featured at the head table?  (If you didn’t, I just learned about it too!)  The tradition began with President Reagan’s second term in 1985.  At the Inaugural Luncheon the newly elected are presented an American painting that serves as a visual representation of the day’s theme.  Although the luncheon was canceled this year due to the pandemic, I was happy to see that this tradition continued on!

Photo US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden are presented with Landscape with Rainbow by Robert S. Duncanson from US Senator Roy Blunt. January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC.
US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden are presented with a painting from US Senator Roy Blunt. January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo by WIN MCNAMEE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.

Landscape With Rainbow

Landscape with Rainbow by Robert S. Duncanson. 1859 Hudson River School oil painting of pasture of cows with lake in the distance and rainbow.
Robert S. Duncanson, Landscape with Rainbow, 1859, oil on canvas, via Smithsonian American Art Museum


The painting selected by First Lady Biden for President Biden and Vice President Harris’s first term is titled Landscape With Rainbow by American artist Robert S. Duncanson.  It was painted in 1859 and is an oil painting on canvas measuring 30 inches by 52 1/4 inches.  The painting depicts a pastoral paradise with a young couple walking towards a house at the end of a rainbow.  It was painted just before the break of the Civil War, and was said to represent a hope for peace.  The painting is on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.



As I started to look into more about the painting and the artist, I was excited to see that he was born here in the Finger Lakes!  

Robert S. Duncanson was born in Fayette, New York in 1821.  Fayette is a small town between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes close to Seneca Falls.  Duncanson’s grandfather (Charles) and father (John) were born into slavery in Virginia.  After they were emancipated, they learned the trades of carpentry and house painting.  Due to rising tensions in the south against free Black men, Charles, John, and John’s wife (Robert’s mother) Lucy moved northward to Fayette, New York in 1790 where Robert Duncanson was later born.  

After the death of Charles, the Duncanson Family moved west to Monroe, Michigan in 1828.  Robert Duncanson later took up the family trades of carpentry and house painting before becoming an artist.  He lived the majority of his adult life in Cincinnati, Ohio.

photo of artist Robert S. Duncanson sitting in chair with arm on side table hat and cane in hand
Robert S. Duncanson, 1864, Montreal QC, photographed by William Notman


Robert Duncanson did not have a formal art education.  He learned through observing from life and imitating works from well-known artists to practice his skills.  He began his artist career as a itinerant portrait painter traveling between Cincinnati, Detroit, and Monroe, MI for work.

Duncanson was later introduced to genre painting (painting of ordinary people doing everyday things) and was inspired to take his art in a different direction.  He began painting landscapes and being inspired by travel art journals.  With Cincinnati artists T. Worthington Whittredge and William Louis Sonntag, Duncanson took sketching trips around the country for inspiration to practice the Hudson River School style of art that was popular during that time.  The art movement, started by Thomas Cole, portrayed American ideals through realistically detailed but romanticized landscape scenes.  Duncanson, Whittredge, and Sonntag’s art focused on scenes of the Ohio River Valley.

Robert Duncanson gained success through the support of Abolitionist patrons who bought his paintings, commissioned art, and sponsored his travel.  He was commissioned by Reverend James Francis Conover to create the painting “Uncle Tom and Little Eva” based on a scene from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe (a relative of the Elmira Beecher’s). 

One of his biggest supporters was Nicholas Longworth, an abolitionist and wealthy landowner in Cincinnati who commissioned Duncanson to paint a series of eight murals in his home – Belmont Mansion (now the Taft Museum of Art).  Longworth also helped fund Duncanson’s first trip to Europe in 1853.  While visiting Europe for the first time, he was inspired by painters such as French landscapist Claude Lorrain and English Romanticist J.M.W. Turner.  

During the Civil War when tensions rose in Ohio, Duncanson self-exiled to Montreal, Canada where he influenced local Canadian art by introducing the romanticized landscape style of the Hudson River School.  Canadian artist Allan Edson studied under Duncanson during the time that Duncanson lived there (1863-1865).

After returning back to the United States Robert Duncanson became ill with what was believed to be dementia and possibly lead poisoning.  He died on December 21, 1872 in Detroit, Michigan at age 51. 


Robert Duncanson was considered the “best landscape painter of the west” during his time and was the first African American landscape painter to gain international recognition.  Duncanson was part of the second generation of the Hudson River School of Art.  He was also credited with developing the regional Ohio Valley art form.  

And now his art is again providing hope and reflection as we enter into the 46th presidency. 


Resources & Further Learning

Inaugural Luncheon paintings

Smithsonian Institute – Landscape with Rainbow

Smithsonian Institute – Robert S. Duncanson

A Look at the Work of Painter Robert S. Duncanson (YouTube: Black Art in America)

Nicholas Longworth & Robert S. Duncanson (YouTube: Cincinnati Art Museum)

Robert S Duncanson (YouTube: Our Finger Lakes History)–2g

How does an African-American artist prominent in the mid 1800s fall into relative obscurity and make a comeback in the late 1900s? (Ohio History Connection)

Wikipedia entry

The Emergence of the African American Artist

The Hudson River School Via Cincinnati (Chronogram)

Landscape with Cows Watering in a Stream (The MET Museum)

An American Painter’s Lasting Canadian Impression (National Gallery of Canada)

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