Art for the President's House--An Historical PerspectiveIn 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 Yet the collection remains unified by three basic concerns: art--chiefly American art--as historical document, as decoration, and as vehicle for celebrating American values and achievements.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.
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gathering works of art that served primarily as historical
documents.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.