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Art for the President's House--An Historical Perspective

Clearly, historicism was still dominant under President Harrison. It is logical that he and his wife were preoccupied with history. The 23rd President was named for his great-grandfather, who was one of Virginia's signers of the Declaration of Independence. His grandfather William Henry Harrison had been President--though only for a month before he died after suffering exhaustion and exposure to winter cold. Caroline Harrison undertook a detailed inventory of the contents of the White House and carefully surveyed those items believed to be historic, as she prepared for a renovation.

The 100th anniversary of George Washington's inauguration was celebrated in 1889, the year Harrison took office. Public interest focused afresh both on the nation's highest office and on its official seat, the White House. Discussion of an expansion of the house, in the wind during the Arthur and Cleveland years, was renewed. Mrs. Harrison pressed for the expansion in historic terms. Her model was Mount Vernon, with its central block and side wings connected by colonnades. She proposed a complex of buildings that would preserve the original residence, yet better serve the private and public requirements of the President. She recognized the need for an official residence, which in her own words, "may be creditable to the Executive of the greatest nation on the globe." Frederick D. Owen, a civil and mechanical engineer and Mrs. Harrison's personal friend, produced a schematic drawing that reflected the First Lady's plan. The east building was to be a public gallery for historical art. As designed, the "public art wing" would have high ceilings and rooms that opened into each other through spacious doorways. Mrs. Harrison saw this both as a public gallery and as an area that could be adapted for large receptions. While the project did not come to fruition, her suggestions for expansion prompted future changes in the President's House. Her activities, moreover, were important harbingers of the professional curatorial operation introduced during the Kennedy Administration some 70 years later.

[Love and Life, George F. Watts] Grover Cleveland, back in the White House for a second term from 1893 to 1897, was preoccupied with the nation's financial problems and his own precarious health. His young wife, Frances Folsom Cleveland, made some halfhearted attempts to pursue Mrs. Harrison's scheme for expanding the White House, but those plans were abandoned after the financial crash of 1893. Mrs. Cleveland simply rearranged paintings, including presidential portraits, on the State Floor. During these years British painter George F. Watts presented the White House with his painting Love and Life, (at right) which had been exhibited to great acclaim at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and admired by President Cleveland. Its allegorical use of the nude made it the target of groups such as the powerful Woman's Christian Temperance Union. As a result, it was transferred to the nearby Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1895, from whence it made brief but controversial sorties to the White House. As Cleveland left office in 1897, in a moment of humility decidedly uncharacteristic of Presidents, he ordered the removal of his portrait from public view. He did not wish to impose it on William McKinley, his successor.

McKinley was deeply involved with international developments that led to the Spanish-American War, and neither he nor his wife devoted much energy to the White House or its collection. Once the war began, much of his time was spent in the Cabinet Room, where portraits of the Presidents hung on two walls, and where the incumbent President might seek the reassurance of history in a time of crisis.

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