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Art for the President's House —
An Historical Perspective
by Doreen Bolger & David Park Curry

"I will never forget that I live in a house owned by all the American people"
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt -

The white building that stands at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation's capital city is familiar to most of us, yet few people are frequent callers there. When Franklin Roosevelt said that this house is owned by all the American people, he had something else in mind. Whatever our political views,family backgrounds, or special interests, we all live there in a sense through shared history and citizenship.

To walk over the manicured grounds toward the White House entrance is to feel the significance of our nation's history. Those who do cross the threshold of the President's House renew a kinship with what must be understood as a widely extended family. Like a grand European house of three or four hundred years ago, the White House encloses both public and private rooms that serve multiple functions. Through the same hallways pass the casual vacationer, the hurried diplomatic adviser, and the current presidential family. Their common ground is the house itself and the history it represents.

First occupied in 1800, the White House has served as the official residence of all the Presidents of the United States except George Washington, who chose the site. Presidents and First Ladies alike have directed expansions, renovations, and redecorations. Many played important roles in shaping the appearance of the house and in forming the collection of fine and decorative arts. The aggregate of decisions determined the direction and content of the Executive Mansion as it exists today. While the White House fine arts collection is now a permanent one and the State Rooms presently enjoy museum status, this was not always the case. The art and decoration in the house changed noticeably from administration to administration.

Not surprisingly, the families of the Presidents remained attached to the White House after leaving it. Some made gifts to the collection.

The great-great grandson of John Quincy Adams presented Gilbert Stuart portraits of his ancestors, John Quincy Adams and Louisa Adams (shown at left). The works may have hung in the White House during the John Quincy Adams Administration.

Zachary Taylor's daughter gave a portrait of her father. A descendant of Martin Van Buren's bequeathed a marble bust of him, as well as an elegant oil portrait of his daughter-in-law and hostess, Angelica Singleton Van Buren (at right).

Members of Abraham Lincoln's family presented portraits of both Lincoln and his wife. Theodore Roosevelt's family gave a black and white illustration by Frederic Remington that features one Roosevelt's adventures.

In 1963 the family of John F. Kennedy contributed a painting by French Impressionist Claude Monet as a tribute to President Kennedy's great love of the outdoors.

These gifts from presidential families, however, account for only a small number of works acquired over the years. More recently the growth of the fine arts collection has depended heavily on the generosity of the American public, and today the Executive Mansion houses nearly 450 examples of painting and sculpture.

A number of works by important artists--Jasper Cropsey, William Glackens, and Maurice Prendergast among them--have been given by their descendants. Other individuals too have become participants in the national collecting enterprise, securing works of art for the "house owned by all the American people." One donor, upon learning that the Executive Mansion wanted to acquire a particular view of the Rocky Mountains by Albert Bierstadt, purchased it, placed it on loan, and eventually gave it to the collection. When a newspaper reported that the White House had been the unsuccessful bidder for a genre scene by George Caleb Bingham, a citizen of the artist's home state, Missouri, offered a contribution. He donated a share in the river scene by Bingham that he owned, and funds from a second donor completed the purchase. Aware of President Jimmy Carter's admiration of William M. Harnett's Cincinnati Enquirer (at left, below), on loan to the White House, a donor bought it for the collection.

In 1976 two sisters from Kentucky presented Fredrick Remington's Bronco Buster, believing its display in the White House would "inspire a feeling of strength and determination of the American spirit" characteristic of their father, the previous owner. The formation of the White House collection has involved not only Presidents and First Ladies but also politicians, curators, collectors, librarians, interior decorators, and others, working in concert and in conflict over some 200 years. Yet the collection remains unified by three basic concerns: art--chiefly American art--as historical document, as decoration, and as vehicle for celebrating American values and achievements. All three themes appear again and again in the subject matter of the art, in the intentions of its creators, in the taste of its donors, and in the eyes of the beholders. These threads have been constantly interwoven throughout the past two centuries, but the historical has been the strongest and the most evident collecting criterion.

For much of the time, subject matter took precedence over the artist's reputation or the work's quality of execution. Portraits of early Presidents were copied during the 19th century to provide the White House with suitable likenesses. This documentary emphasis resulted in paintings that vary widely in quality and often lack the vitality and character of the life portraits they replicated or interpreted.

By the 1880s Presidents and First Ladies began commissioning grander portraits from nationally known and even internationally famous artists. Perhaps our turn-of-the-century leaders wished to have more of a hand in how they were remembered, a change that itself indicates the rise of art consciousness. As the collections policy of the White House became more clearly articulated and as the field of American art matured as well, acquisitions criteria were greatly expanded to give artistic considerations more weight, balancing the documentary excesses of previous generations. Yet the acquisition of life portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies consistently remained the first priority for the collection.

A full-length portrait of George Washington (at the right), purchased for $800--a significant sum when expended on July 5, 1800--set the policy for gathering works of art that served primarily as historical documents. Indeed this 1797 painting is actually a replica by Gilbert Stuart of the portrait of Washington he had painted the previous year. From time to time, the identity of the artist has been questioned, but the iconic significance of the image far outweighs any question of attribution. Stuart's multiple portraits of George Washington--he made two of them from life and many replicas--established the first President's countenance firmly in the public mind, as an idealized exaltation of a great national hero. Exhibited in New York in 1798, one of Stuart's Washington portraits was appreciated as much for its subject as for its artistic quality:

"While the intrinsic merit of the picture alone presented an admirable specimen of the fine arts for the gratification of the chaste connoisseur, recollection naturally called to mind the unparalleled services and eminent virtues of this illustrious sage."

Hanging in the East Room, the most prominent ceremonial space in the White House, the Father of the Country presides over bill signing ceremonies, official entertainments, and press conferences.

Nineteenth-century residents of the White House so desired these historic icons that they were willing to re-create them if necessary. The companion to Stuart's Washington, a portrait of the President's wife, Martha (at left), was painted in 1878 by Eliphalet Frazer Andrews, director of the newly founded Corcoran School of Art.This pastiche hangs as a testament to the policy of collecting for historical rather than aesthetic reasons. Andrews' combination of various sources, new and old, did not go unremarked when the portrait was exhibited at the Cincinnati Industrial Exposition the following year:

[Martha Washington] is one of those historic pictures that hold the inherent immortality of history rather than purely of art. [Gilbert] Stuart's original portrait of Lady Washington was simply of the head and bust.... [W]hile the likeness is taken from that... the rest [is] original with Mr. Andrews.

That the head replicated an earlier painting by Stuart, while the hands were taken from studies of a live model, explains the somewhat disembodied quality of Andrews' grand manner portrait. After the exposition the canvas was displayed at the White House, where another journalist noted that the dress seen on Martha Washington in the painting was designed by the Parisian couturier Worth- and made for a New York socialite to wear during the nation's Centennial, a century after Martha's time. Nonetheless, the reporter found the portrait "without a doubt the central object of attention at the White House."

Today the White House collection includes canvases of First Ladies far surpassing Andrews' work in artistic quality, but the monumental portrait still occupies the place of honor in the East Room. The figure rests her hand upon a fancy chair that was not produced until years after Martha Washington's death. That the chair is incongruous, or that the dress was designed in 1876 rather than 1776, is not particularly disturbing to most visitors who encounter Mrs. Washington's regal image in the East Room. She is not there as a great portrait, but as an important presence.

Lucy Hayes, wife of then President Rutherford B. Hayes, lobbied for this purchase as a companion piece to the much older image of George Washington. Eventually Congress purchased Andrews' canvas for the not inconsiderable sum of $3,000.

Years later, Theodore Roosevelt's wife Edith, established a First Ladies portrait gallery in the Ground Floor Corridor; this image remained enshrined on the State Floor. "There is just one likeness of a woman which has not been consigned to the ill lighted basement gallery," commented a writer for Munsey's Magazine. This is the portrait of Mrs. Washington who was never mistress of the White House--by Andrews, which has the honor of hanging... near the Stuart portrait of her illustrious husband.

More than three-quarters of a century stretches between the acquisition of portraits of George and Martha Washington. During that period, and especially from 1800 to 1850, the Executive Mansion experienced a succession of expensive redecorations but acquired little art through gifts or purchases. During Andrew Jackson's two terms alone, Congress appropriated nearly $50,000, an enormous sum, for refurbishing the house and adding the North Portico; none of the money seems to have been used to commission or purchase artwork. Certainly there was no dearth of available painters, for artists such as Trumbull, John Vanderlyn, and Samuel F. B. were at work on important portraits and historical paintings commissioned for other locations, notably the United States Capitol. But at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue presidential images were as transient decor. The much admired furnishings of one administration quickly became the castoffs of the next, and Presidents usually retained their personal commissioned portraits upon leaving the White House.

In 1826 Trumbull, desiring a commission to paint historical pictures for the Capitol, begged for the "patronage of government." He observed that such support "the fine arts may be stimulated and encouraged, the national edifices decorated, authentic monuments of national history preserved, elegant and attractive rewards bestowed on the meritorious servants of the public, and the national glory essentially advanced."

Trumbull's words set out many of the goals later espoused by the White House in the formation of the permanent collection, but at this early date few commissions seem to have been considered. A notable exception came during the James Monroe Administration, when John Vanderlyn actually set up a studio in the East Room, which the President asked him to adorn with painted wall decorations. The plan was thwarted in 1819, two years into the administration, by lack of funding. Above at the left is a 19th-century engraving based on a John Trumbell painting by Waterman Lilly Ormsby. In the early years of the 19th century, no portrait but Washington's was commissioned for the White House by Congress. Perhaps the first few Presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson among them, suffered neglect because of the reverence accorded their predecessor. Moreover, public acquisition of their portraits at that time would have reflected an interest in current events rather than in history.

Ultimately, this inattention may have been a result of the way the White House itself was viewed--as a home, not as a public building. Since the early 19th century the Executive Mansion has mirrored democratic attitudes toward domestic fashion and decoration, making a self-conscious departure from the grander tradition of the great state residences of the Old World.

In 1817, during the Monroe Administration, the son of Tobias Lear, Washington's secretary, sold the government marble busts representing Washington and two figures closely associated with the New World: Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci (at upper left). Yet inventories taken in the first half of the 19th century document how few examples of the fine arts were then in the White House. The inventories reveal the government's modest response to the lofty aspirations of John Trumbull and others: an engraving (see above), most likely after Trumbull's painting The Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776 (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven), and two anonymous panoramas of Niagara Falls, which was widely considered the country's greatest natural wonder.

Following its establishment as the nation's capital city, Washington D.C. grew steadily and after the mid-nineteenth century began to attract more American painters, becoming a center of artistic activity. In 1858 artists founded a National Art Association to encourage government support for the arts. The year 1860 witnessed the founding of a National Gallery and School of Arts, a short lived organization that sponsored lectures and annual exhibitions. Painters and sculptors were also drawn to the city by federal building projects, by the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution, and by the United States government's involvement in western exploration.

George P. A. Healy arrived on the Washington scene in the midst of this new period of activity when Congress commissioned him in 1857 to paint a series of presidential portraits. The series was the first effort to obtain for the White House a visual record of its prior inhabitants. Healy had just returned from Paris, where he had achieved a significant reputation and won the patronage of Louis Philippe, Citizen King of the French, and Lewis Cass, American minister to France. A sophisticated artist accustomed to mingling with politicians, diplomats, and royalty, Healy had already painted such American notables as Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. In 1842 he had worked in the White House, making a copy of Stuart's Washington for Louis Philippe, and he had already met and even painted some former Presidents whose likenesses were still needed for the White House. In just a few years Healy completed portraits of John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler (at left) James K. Polk, Millard Fillmore, and Franklin Pierce (at right).

The series was an imposing one. Healy's Presidents were portrayed in the grand manner: full length, standing or seated, surrounded by opulent accessories, their gestures commanding and their demeanor grave. The artist's work was interrupted by the Civil War, however, and his unframed paintings were temporarily relegated to the attic.

Art for the President's House — An Historical Perspective
Early - Middle 1800's  —  Middle - Late 1800's  —  The 1900's
Art in the White House: A Nation's Pride


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