Art for the President's House--An Historical PerspectiveEven 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 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.
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