There are thousands of ways to look at things. This is just how I do it. Once a week, we'll look at a piece of art that speaks to our current moment. Today, we're looking at a vision of America-as-paradise.
To the left, a farmer and his wife stroll across a field, their dog trailing behind. Cattle graze ahead of the couple as a farmhouse, nestled amongst the scene's greenery, is just barely visible in the background. These figures are swallowed up by nature, which is abundant and calm as a rainbow arches over the scene. It's pretty fucking bucolic.
The painting titled "Landscape with Rainbow" by Robert S. Duncanson had its moment in the sun recently when none other than Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) presented the piece to the President and Dr. Biden on Inauguration Day. Traditionally, the "inaugural painting" would serve as a backdrop at the Senate Inaugural Luncheon but was instead awkwardly presented to the First Couple on their "gift quest" through the Capitol building.
Robert S. Duncanson, Landscape with Rainbow, 1859
Duncanson was America’s best known African American painter in the years surrounding the Civil War. pic.twitter.com/qRPX6jTDAT
— Antwaun Sargent (@Sirsargent) January 20, 2021
The painting has now been returned to its home at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, but the "inaugural painting" is seen as a symbol of the incoming president's agenda. Dr. Biden chose Duncanson's work for the occasion, a prominent Black painter during the Civil War era who composed this piece just before the war's outbreak.
As the L.A. Times notes, rainbows typically appear after the storm, not before. So we are to take this utopian scene composed by a Black hand as a vision of America as a paradise yet to come. A willful projection of the country as eternal, lush, and capable of weathering a storm. Unity takes effort but is eventual.
This, of course, is the tone President Biden would like to set coming into the White House just weeks after its previous occupant goaded his supporters to take over the Capitol. Even though chosen by the First Lady, it's a safe paternalistic pick that communicates, My hand is steady.
While I admire Duncanson's work greatly, I remember watching Sen. Blunt present the painting to an attentive and polite Biden family, thinking about how this choice doesn't quite meet the moment. I want justice for the past few years—not a fragile, nonexistent utopia. Rainbows, we must remember, are just a trick of light.