Hammonds House has the oldest painting by Biden’s inaugural artist

This is the oldest known painting by acclaimed 19th-century artist, Robert S. Duncanson, perhaps the most successful African American artist of his time. Hammonds House Museum in Atlanta owns the mother and daughter portrait. Courtesy of Hammonds House Museum
This is the oldest known painting by acclaimed 19th-century artist, Robert S. Duncanson, perhaps the most successful African American artist of his time. Hammonds House Museum in Atlanta owns the mother and daughter portrait. Courtesy of Hammonds House Museum

Credit: Hammonds House Museum

Credit: Hammonds House Museum

The portrait is by Robert S. Duncanson, a noted Black 19th-century painter.

While the rest of the world was basking in the brilliance of Amanda Gorman’s poem at the inauguration of President Joe Biden, former and current curators of Atlanta’s Hammonds House Museum were buzzing about something else.

As the newly sworn-in president and first lady Dr. Jill Biden entered the U.S. Capitol Rotunda for the traditional post-inaugural luncheon — which was changed to a socially-distant, mask-on reception because of the pandemic — they stopped in front of a landscape painting. It’s tradition that before the luncheon, the new president and first lady are formally presented with a work of art by an American artist that symbolizes the new administration’s vision and hope for the country. Greeted by Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, of Missouri, Blunt began to talk about the painting, “Landscape With a Rainbow,” by Robert Seldon Duncanson, “the best-known African American painter in the years surrounding the Civil War, based in Cincinnati, encouraged by abolitionists...”

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo, presents a painting to President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden, as Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff look on at the presentation of gifts ceremony after the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 20. Win McNamee/Getty Images/Pool Photo via AP
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo, presents a painting to President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden, as Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff look on at the presentation of gifts ceremony after the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 20. Win McNamee/Getty Images/Pool Photo via AP

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

With those words, the phones of the Hammonds House Museum’s curators lit up, each one calling the other in astonishment over what they were seeing on television. They realized that their small Atlanta museum possessed the oldest known painting by Duncanson, “Portrait of a Mother and Daughter,” dating to 1841.

“We couldn’t believe it,” said Kevin Sipp, a former Hammonds House curator who now works for the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs. “We were like, ‘Do you see that? It’s a Robert Duncanson!’”

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.
Hammonds House Museum has the oldest painting by Biden’s inaugural artist, Robert Seldon Duncanson.

Credit: Kirk Kingsbury

Credit: Kirk Kingsbury

In Other News