Art for the President's House--An Historical PerspectiveAlthough 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.
President and First Lady | Vice President and Mrs. Gore