The provenance of the mother and daughter painting is well recognized by art historians. But how Hammonds House came to acquire the painting is a story that began more than 40 years ago, when Duncanson’s renown as a pioneering American painter had been all but forgotten.
Born in New York in 1821, Duncanson and his family moved to a small Ohio town just outside Cincinnati, when he was about 19 years old. It is believed he was largely self-taught as a painter, though in later years he did study for a short time in Europe. But it was in those early years in Ohio, when the state was considered a free state from legal slavery, that Duncanson began his career. “Portrait of a Mother and Daughter,” is an example of the sort of limner portraiture done by itinerant artists at the time, who were essentially portrait painters for hire.
“In the 1840s, it was typical for artists to pre-paint the figures or bodies and then add the heads to the stock bodies and let the clients pick which body and dress they would add their heads to,” Sipp said.
The Hammonds House painting is an example of that. Duncanson would go on to become a skilled landscape painter, the Ohio Valley a common subject for its beauty but also for what the state may have symbolized to Duncanson and many African Americans. Sipp said there is a belief that Duncanson would sometimes code his paintings with references to freedom, such as a rainbow, symbolizing hope, or a river, representing freedom upon crossing.
Dr. Otis Thrash Hammonds knew this history went he bought a mammoth Victorian house on Peeples Street in Atlanta in the late 1970s. The anesthesiologist had amassed an art collection numbering more than 250 pieces by African American artists, such Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. The house was going to be a showcase for the collection, and he set about renovating it. Sometime between the fall of 1979 and spring of 1980, Hammonds bought the Duncanson portrait. It’s not known what he paid for it at the time. It was to have been one of his showcase pieces.
But Hammonds passed away in 1985, never getting the chance to fully realize his plan of making his home the site of one of the city’s best collections of Black art. But once leaders in Atlanta’s Black arts community pulled together and enlisted help of Fulton County to get the house turned into a museum, Hammonds’ vision began to take shape. Duncanson’s portrait would finally be seen.
“We made the placement, and we put it in the Green Room, which was the second room on the right,” said Ed Spriggs, founding curator and director of Hammonds House. “We displayed it over the fireplace because it was kind of a family looking painting.”
Hammonds House is closed to the public because of the pandemic, and the Duncanson painting is now in storage.
In 1996, on the occasion of the Olympics, the museum was co-sponsor of a traveling tour of Duncanson’s work, Sipp said. But in time, the artist’s work and legacy faded from popular view. Then came Inauguration Day. Jill Biden chose the 1859 landscape, which is part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
“I like the rainbow,” the first lady said, through her mask.
“The rainbow is always a good sign,” Blunt replied.
Hammonds House Museum has the oldest painting by Biden’s inaugural artist, Robert Seldon Duncanson.
Credit: Kirk Kingsbury
Credit: Kirk Kingsbury