The first lady, who helped select the painting from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, pointed to the rainbow, an uncommon feature in antebellum landscape paintings, as a good omen. “I like the rainbow,” she said. “Good things to follow.”
Working in a nation on the brink, Duncanson looked to the landscape: marred by the displacement of Native Americans, cultivated on the backs of enslaved people, soon to be the site of a bloody war. In it, he found a rare, radical hope — it came as a gray-toned rainbow, an elm tree symbolizing freedom and an Edenic valley scene.
A century and a half later, hope arrived again in the small miracle of having his work — the first inaugural painting by a Black artist — displayed in a space that, just two weeks earlier, had been desecrated by a Confederate flag-carrying mob.
Duncanson painted “Landscape With Rainbow” while living on the…