Laura Baptiste, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s (SAAM’s) always helpful chief of communications and public affairs, found herself fielding misinformation disseminated in a number of news reports after Wednesday’s Presidential Inauguration festivities. She scrambled to set the record straight about Robert Duncanson‘s suddenly famous “Landscape with Rainbow,” after several published accounts indicated that Senator Roy Blunt had presented SAAM’s painting to the Bidens “as an Inauguration gift” (in the words of the headline of this artnet report).
Artnet‘s muddled account, published two weeks after much more serious confusion had roiled the Capitol, caused me to do a doubletake, since that type of museum deaccessioning—bestowing gifts on government officials—is not countenanced by the Association of Art Museum Directors’ professional guidelines (although these days, with AAMD’s recent willingness to loosen its previous standards, who knows?). Notwithstanding the still misleading headline (which may be changed by the time you read this), the text of artnet‘s article now notes that the painting was “loaned to the couple [emphasis added] by the Smithsonian Museum” (more accurately, “the Smithsonian American Art Museum” or “the Smithsonian Institution”).
When last I looked, the tweet that caused me to click on the link to the eyebrow-raising story was still a botch:
(That tweet might be deleted by the time you read this.)
Dated 1859, this dreamy painting is actually pre-Civil War. But let’s move on to more substantive considerations: Where is “Rainbow” now?
Here’s what Laura told me about its current whereabouts:
The painting was at the Capitol as a short-term loan and has been returned to the museum and put back on view in our permanent collection galleries where it will wait patiently for us to be able to open our doors again to visitors.
All the reports of the painting being a “gift” to the Bidens are incorrect. The painting was selected by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and Senator Roy Blunt to reflect the theme of the 59th annual ceremonies—“Our Determined Democracy: Forging a More Perfect Union”—and was intended to hang behind the head table for the traditional welcome luncheon for the new President and Vice President.
The event was re-envisioned due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and so the painting was presented as part of the gift-giving ceremony following the swearing-in on the West Front (which has caused some public confusion that the painting was a gift too).
I’m guessing that when SAAM finally does reopen (date not yet announced), it might want to give Duncanson’s landscape special prominence, to satisfy the curious. For now, you can read senior curator Eleanor Jones Harvey‘s new online feature describing this “pictorial end of the rainbow towards which the couple walks.”
As for the works that were on loan to the Capitol from the Smithsonian when the mayhem erupted, Baptiste was pleased to confirm that all “are safe and undamaged, including a dozen paintings—three in Speaker Nancy Pelosi‘s office—from SAAM’s collection.” She’s heard nothing yet about what the First or Second Family might want to borrow for their official residences: “There have been preliminary inquiries about loans to the White House, but no specifics yet.”
For a look at the art that adorns the Biden Oval Office this far, see this illustrated rundown in the Washington Post.
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