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

With McKinley's assassination at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office. The White House, now more than a hundred years old, entered a new era with the Roosevelts, who loved the residence for its many associations. As the President once responded when asked whether the Executive Mansion should be abandoned to office space: "Mrs. Roosevelt and I are firmly of the opinion that the President should live nowhere else than in the historic White House." Historicism once again became the dominant ideal for the State Rooms. During the Roosevelts' tenure, in 1902, the prestigious firm of McKim, Mead, & White began extensive renovations by sweeping away the exuberant Victorian decorations--by then seen as free-wheeling incongruities--and returning the mansion to a simpler, if equally stately, neoclassicism. (At left is the East Room prior to the 1902 renovations.)

The Ground Floor Corridor and the rooms opening off it had been used as a behind-the-scenes work area for years. As early as the Lincoln Administration an aide had complained that the White House basement reminded him of "something you have smelled in the edge of some swamp." Now the elegant vaulted ceiling originally designed by James Hoban was restored, transforming the Corridor into a gallery for the First Ladies' portraits that had been collected at the end of the 19th century. Mrs. Roosevelt wrote to McKim:

The President and I have consulted, and we hope it is possible for you to put all the ladies of the White House, including myself, in the downstairs corridor that the dressing rooms open on; also the busts. It could then be called the picture gallery, and you know a name goes a long way. I am afraid the Presidents will still have to hang in the red and green rooms, and I suppose Washington and Mrs. Washington and Lincoln must remain as before, in the east room.

Although some critics objected to her decision to place the portraits of First Ladies in a "basement" corridor, the general reaction was favorable. "It seems to me it has rescued those admirable females from oblivion," wrote Ellen Maurey Slayden, wife of a senator from Texas. "The light is good, there is plenty of room and anyone who wants to gaze at Mrs. Van Buren's bobbing curls or Mrs. Hayes' blue velvet dress 'all buttoned down before' can do it at leisure without incommoding other people."

While the Roosevelts paid homage to the past, they did not neglect the present. Theobald Chartran, a then fashionable French portraitist who had already recorded the signing of the peace between the United States and Spain, came to Washington again to paint a magnificent, casually posed portrait of Mrs. Roosevelt in a large, wide-brimmed hat. The genteel and self-assured sitter occupies a garden bench. The columns in the background tell the viewer that Mrs. Roosevelt is on the White House grounds. It is worth remarking that the Executive Mansion appears as a recognizable backdrop in several First Lady portraits, but never in the official image of a President. This is perhaps a reminder that, since the Aesthetic movement, the fortunes of the White House fine arts collection had been furthered more often by First Ladies than by Presidents.

Chartran also painted a portrait of Roosevelt, but it was disliked by the family and later destroyed. Archibald Butt, a close aide to Roosevelt and chronicler of White House life, recalled:

I wonder what Chartran would think if he could see the portrait of the President being destroyed...neither the President nor his wife has ever liked the portrait. It was hung in the upper corridor, in the darkest spot on the wall, and by the family it has always been called the Mewing Cat. In 1903 the commission for Roosevelt's portrait (shown at right) was given to American expatriate John Singer Sargent. Perhaps the leading international portraitist of his generation, Sargent was a departure from the provincial American artists often selected during the previous century. The President's pose reflects the artist's confidence; a believable posture with little in the way of setting or accessories, it suggests the vigor and charisma--perhaps even arrogance--of the man. Despite the informal pose, Sargent himself described the portrait as one "in the historical series of the Presidents of the United States." And President Roosevelt had acknowledged Sargent's preeminence in a letter the preceding year: "He is of course the one artist who should paint the portrait of an American President."

While Sargent's may have been the official portrait of Roosevelt, the popular President is represented by many other images, too. Roosevelt was a President whose exploits captured the imaginations of both artists and the public. Like his predecessors Washington and Lincoln, the legendary Roosevelt has served as a focal point for the White House collection.

For a decade and a half following Roosevelt's term--although Presidents and First Ladies sat for distinguished portraitists--little attention was paid to fine arts collecting at the White House. Then, in 1925 during the Coolidge Administration, Congress appointed an official who was given the authority to accept gifts for the Executive Mansion with the President's approval.

Mrs. Coolidge herself chose a distinguished advisory committee that included the fashionable residential architects Charles Adams Platt and William Adams Delano as well as Robert W. DeForest, the founder of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A plan for "historical" State Rooms, with the involvement of the advisory panel, illustrates subtle changes in the way the White House was now perceived. The long-lasting interest in historical matters had fostered attention to curatorial procedures, and the house was evolving into a museum as well as a monument.

But in the Coolidge era the White House was not yet an art museum. Although Mrs. Coolidge's portrait captures her arrayed in the latest fashion, the First Lady was more interested in adding colonial-style furniture--inspired by period rooms in the American Wing--than she was in collecting paintings and sculpture. In the hope that the American people would aid in furnishing the Executive Mansion, she helped persuade Congress to authorize the acquisition of appropriate antiques as gifts. As with copied portraits, reproduction furniture sufficed when antiques were not available.

A serious effort to document White House furnishings was led by the next First Lady, Lou Henry Hoover. An enthusiast of memorabilia and old photographs, she occasionally directed her energies toward the collection of paintings and sculpture. Mrs. Hoover agreed in 1930 that the White House portraits be photographed and documented by researchers from the prestigious Frick Art Reference Library. Researcher Katharine McCook Knox's description of her own work on this project demonstrates a professional attitude toward the White House and its history, reflecting the enthusiasm for documentation characteristic of early efforts in the field of American art history. Mrs. Knox recalled entering the White House and glimpsing the portrait of Julia Gardner Tyler (shown at left) far down a corridor:

I welcomed this opportunity of examining the back of the canvas, somewhat to the wonderment of the nice electricians [who were working nearby and removed the portrait from the wall]....On the back of the canvas, Francesco Anelli had spelled the fair Julia's name Giulia, as in the Italian manner. He dated the canvas 1848 and signed it F. Anelli. The merchant stamped on the back the following: "J.W. Hawkhurst's Paint and Art Store, 114 Grand Street, New York, Artists and Painters Brushes and materials of every description."

The result of this research was a loose-leaf volume, presented to the White House in 1931, and much used by the President's staff to answer inquiries about works in the collection. The Frick provided photographs of White House paintings for 38 years, a period when, as former curator Clement E. Conger said, "the collection was insufficiently organized to meet the requests of the public."

Mrs. Hoover made use of President and First Lady portraits in continuing the renovations of the rooms. Though the portraits of George and Martha Washington had been displayed in the Red Room since 1902, she had them reinstalled in the stately East Room. In transforming her second-floor drawing room into the "Monroe Drawing Room," she installed a portrait of Elizabeth Kortright Monroe, copied in 1932, slightly more than a century after that First Lady's death. A portrait of Abraham Lincoln replaced a tapestry hung in the State Dining Room during Roosevelt's renovation, and one of John Quincy Adams was hung prominently in the Green Room. That room had finally been completed by the advisory committee convened by Mrs. Coolidge.

The committee continued its work on the Red Room during the tenure of Franklin Roosevelt, choosing a number of presidential portraits to hang on the walls. The creation of these period rooms, using professional advisers, indicated a growing sophistication in the management of the collection; procedures associated with museum curatorship were being adopted.

Even as late as the 1940s and 1950s a historical perspective still guided collecting at the White House. Harry Truman, a devoted student of American history, proclaimed, "There is really not anything new if you know what has gone before." Truman was fascinated by the White House and its former inhabitants. With the construction on the south front of the second-floor balcony that came to be called the Truman balcony, he made the first major change in the main block of the building since the Jacksonian period. Even more dramatic was the total renovation of the White House undertaken during his term. For more than three years, beginning late in 1948, the Trumans lived in Blair House while the aged, dangerously shaky house was gutted to its stone shell and rebuilt. During Harry Truman's Presidency the historical emphasis of the collection was maintained. In 1947 the White House acquired George Healy's painting The Peacemakers (shown at left). It depicts the conclusion of the Civil War, but the acquisition was laden with contemporary significance, for another great conflict, World War II, had ended just two years earlier. A more direct reminder of the war came with the 1949 gift of yet another Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington from a couple whose son had died in World War II.

Since Truman's Presidency the White House has experienced few architectural changes, but in the age of television it has assumed an even greater symbolic importance for the American public. The collection housed there has been expanded both in size and concept, while its growth, care, and interpretation have been systematized.

In its post-World War II renovation the house had lost much of its original patina. During the administration of John F. Kennedy a concerted effort was made to recapture, even re-create, it. Jacqueline Kennedy appeared before millions of Americans in a televised tour of the house, presenting plans for renovation. She sought the advice and cooperation of antiquarians and collectors by appointing a Fine Arts Committee chaired by Henry F. du Pont, founder of the Winterthur Museum, the leading repository of early American decorative arts. New Yorker James W. Fosburgh, who had been on the staff of The Frick Collection for two decades, was named chairman of the special committee for White House paintings. He worked tirelessly to build the collection, which was significantly expanded during the Kennedy term.

An act of Congress, passed in 1961, made objects belonging to the White House part of its permanent collections and designated the State Rooms as having a museum character. The care and the growth of the collections, previously left somewhat to chance, were finally formalized. In the same year the Office of the Curator was established. For the first time truly professional standards were applied to the works in the collection. The nonprofit White House Historical Association was also formed that year to enhance understanding and provide for the interpretation of the house and its collections. The association's founding was followed in 1964 by that of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. To this group falls the responsibility of advising the President on the acquisition, use, and display of historic and artistic objects for the White House.

The very heroes and heroines who had been the centerpiece of the fine arts collection--the Presidents and First Ladies--remained so. The clear favorites were Presidents whose individual achievements symbolize universal values of the nation: George Washington, of course, and Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. In recent years at least ten images representing these illustrious Presidents have been added to the collection, several by artists of the first rank.

Eventually, as more and more life portraits of actual White House residents have been secured, the collection has also embraced likenesses of those who helped build the residence itself. Additions have included two portraits of architects who worked on the house--James Hoban and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Images of distinguished visitors to the Executive Mansion have been collected as well.

Some paintings that may have temporarily hung in the White House during earlier administrations have been recovered for the collection. These include the Gilbert Stuart portraits of President John Quincy Adams and Mrs. Adams and the Constantino Brumidi paintings, Liberty and Union. Brumidi's works, featured in the Entrance Hall redecorated by the Grants, were removed by Mrs. Harrison's decorator in 1891. The pictures were rediscovered in 1978 by the new owners of the home of the decorator in Connecticut and brought back to Washington.

The program begun by Mrs. Kennedy endowed artistic quality with as much weight as historic importance for building the White House collection, and many of the artistic masterpieces we encounter today have been acquired since that time. The emphasis on quality has inspired a number of important gifts from leading collectors since 1961. Among these are John Singer Sargent's The Mosquito Net (shown above), James McNeill Whistler's Nocturne, Thomas Eakins's Ruth, and Mary Cassatt's Young Mother and Two Children. James Fosburgh explained: "The White House is the setting in which the Presidency of the United States is presented to the world and must be a reflection of the best in American history and art."

Under the guidelines established during the Kennedy Administration and refined over time by the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, the expansion of the collection has continued. The works acquired by the White House represent the geographic diversity of the nation and reflect the values and accomplishments of American society. Views of picturesque scenery, familiar vacation haunts, and dramatic natural wonders take the White House visitor from sea to shining sea. As is generally true of traditional American art, the collection features more scenes of leisure than of industry and only a few urban images. Many examples celebrate old ways and bygone days in idealized fashion, and a small gathering of still life paintings evokes the abundance of American life. From representations of revered political leaders, the collection has broadened to include images of the generic American hero: the cowboy, symbol of independence, freedom, and self-reliance. Nonfigurative work has never been a collecting goal, and virtually none of the pictures in the collection depart from representational artistic traditions.

From its limited origins in historicism the fine arts collection at the Executive Mansion has grown to become "a reflection of the best in American history and art." In recent years documentary emphasis has been tempered increasingly by greater concern for aesthetics, introduced through awareness of America's artistic achievements and supported by the growth of scholarship in the field of art history. Not only the quality but also the preservation and care of the collection are delegated to the Office of the Curator. Since 1961 the standards applied to the holdings of the White House have been those of the museum, not of the usual domestic interior. The decorations and collections, enhanced and expanded by each succeeding presidential generation, will continue to evolve as we move into the next century, the third during which this much-changed building has served its enduring function, as a home for our nation's leader, a symbol of the office he holds, and a repository of art for the American people.

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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