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1 2k 509DSC 0511Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872), "Landscape with Rainbow, 1859," Collection: Smithsonian Institution, Museum of American Art, Washington DC

Recent viewers of the news will recognize the use of the newly inaugurated Biden administration's use of a canvas by the black artist Robert Duncanson,  "Landscape with Rainbow" as a symbol of hope with all of the lights and buzzers that accompany the usual proclomation from a politician esconsed in his new perch.

Sounds nice, but to use a canvas painted 161 years ago is somewhat out of context.

It would be unfair to malign the media for misunderstanding art, but the extenuating circumstances regarding this artist have - to some degree - been lost to history, until now that is. 

A pamphlet was found by this writer that described in explicit detail the artists' largest painting effort. Alas, the four yards tall by six hundred yards long panorama on canvas, cut into four sections, has not been seen since 1859. Hence this blind spot regarding the artist's use of the underground railroad as a subject matter. 

Based upon what we already knew,  Duncanson enjoyed at the patronage of Abolitionists, foremost of whom included publisher and firebrand William Lloyd Garrison whose paper, The Liberator, mentioned the work as early as 1846. By the mid 1850's Duncanson returned from a trip abroad with fellow artist WIlliam Louis Sonntag, and could safely be described as being at the top of his artistic powers. His foremost concern was not making money, instead it was to advance the cause of the Underground Railroad, as described in this pamphlet from 1855 that accompanied that endeavor. By the end of this piece, the true meaning of the rainbow will be obvious. Everything Duncanson did was to promote the cause of freedom, and if that could only be found in Canada, so be it. 

This subject gets explored in greater detail in this month's issue of Antiques & fine art magazine where this writer is afforded copyright protection, but since there was not space there for all of the Ball's pamphlet, and that copyright for this long since expired, we can examine Duncanson's work as described in detail to a degree not possibe before.

Of penultimate note in this story on canvas number fifty three was the fate of Duncanson's former neighbor in Cincinnati, Seth Conklin, whose Springfield, Ohio home was found on an 1847 period map less than three miles from Duncanson's home in Mount Healthy. Conklin, a white man was considered to be a martyr for freedom because of his capture with the slave Peter Still. Branded SS for slave stealer, he was beaten, put in chains and thrown into the Tennesee River to drown.

Conklins death was not unnoticed and became a central theme in published books on the Underground Railroad. Peter Still eventually got his freedom and his brother William Still published in 1872 the book, Underground Railroad, a Record of Facts. One of the two foremost late 19th century book on the subject - the other being Wilbur Siebert's, Underground Railroad, from Slavery to Freedom.

1200 The Liberator Fri Apr 27 1855Advertisement in William Lloyd Garrison's paper, The Liberator, Fri April 27, 1855

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505abolitionist 1853 DIA Uncle Tom Little Eva 1953 49.498 d1 2106 08 11 o2The Legree reference refers to Uncle Toms Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowes best selling book on the evils of slavery that Duncanson knew well, indeed painted a scene from that story before going abroad in 1853. Robert Duncanson (1821-1872), Uncle Tom and Little Eva, 1853 Detroit Institute of the Arts, 49.498

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47b 1851Robert Duncanson View of Cincinnati Ohio from Covington KentuckyRobert Duncanson(1821-1872), View of Cincinnati Ohio from Covington Kentucky, 1851

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Tenn 1865 crystalbridges flatboat 13x25Robert Duncanson (1821-1872), Flatboaters on the Ohio River, 1865, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas

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1 2k 507abolitionist 1852shepherd boyRobert Duncanson (1821-1872), Shepherd Boy, 1852, Collection: Metropolitan Museum of Art, exhibited with the Panorama in 1855

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The last published sighting of the panorama was in the summer of 1859, no wonder scholars never knew of Duncanson's lost masterpiece depicting the horrors of the slave trade and the subsequent flights to freedom, aka Canada.

According to no less than William Still in his 1872 book on the Underground railroad, the rainbow plumes of Niagara Falls as seen from the bridge downstream was the best symbol for achieving freedom from slavery, pre Civil War. 

Panorama in Providence in 1859 rkw


About the Author

Robert Alexander Boyle

Robert Alexander Boyle

 Alexander Boyle is a graduate of Trinity College, Hartford, CT where he majored in History. Prior to graduation he co-authored the seminal book Acid Rain in 1983. Alex has worked for the Metropo...