Art for the President's House--An Historical Perspective
That the head replicated an earlier painting by Stuart, while the hands were taken from studies of a live model, explains the somewhat disembodied quality of Andrews' grand manner portrait. After the exposition the canvas was displayed at the White House, where another journalist noted that the dress seen on Martha Washington in the painting was designed by the Parisian couturier Worth- and made for a New York socialite to wear during the nation's Centennial, a century after Martha's time. Nonetheless, the reporter found the portrait "without a doubt the central object of attention at the White House."
Today the White House collection includes canvases of First Ladies far surpassing Andrews' work in artistic quality, but the monumental portrait still occupies the place of honor in the East Room. The figure rests her hand upon a fancy chair that was not produced until years after Martha Washington's death. That the chair is incongruous, or that the dress was designed in 1876 rather than 1776, is not particularly disturbing to most visitors who encounter Mrs. Washington's regal image in the East Room. She is not there as a great portrait, but as an important presence.
Lucy Hayes, wife of then President Rutherford B. Hayes, lobbied for this purchase as a companion piece to the much older image of George Washington. Eventually Congress purchased Andrews' canvas for the not inconsiderable sum of $3,000.
Years later, Theodore Roosevelt's wife Edith, established a First Ladies portrait gallery in the Ground Floor Corridor; this image remained enshrined on the State Floor. "There is just one likeness of a woman which has not been consigned to the ill lighted basement gallery," commented a writer for Munsey's Magazine. This is the portrait of Mrs. Washington who was never mistress of the White House--by Andrews, which has the honor of hanging... near the Stuart portrait of her illustrious husband.
More than three-quarters of a century stretches between the acquisition of portraits of George and Martha Washington. During that period, and especially from 1800 to 1850, the Executive Mansion experienced a succession of expensive redecorations but acquired little art through gifts or purchases. During Andrew Jackson's two terms alone, Congress appropriated nearly $50,000, an enormous sum, for refurbishing the house and adding the North Portico; none of the money seems to have been used to commission or purchase artwork. Certainly there was no dearth of available painters, for artists such as Trumbull, John Vanderlyn, and Samuel F. B. were at work on important portraits and historical paintings commissioned for other locations, notably the United States Capitol. But at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue presidential images were as transient decor. The much admired furnishings of one administration quickly became the castoffs of the next, and Presidents usually retained their personal commissioned portraits upon leaving the White House.
In 1826 Trumbull, desiring a commission to paint historical pictures for the Capitol, begged for the "patronage of government." He observed that such support "the fine arts may be stimulated and encouraged, the national edifices decorated, authentic monuments of national history preserved, elegant and attractive rewards bestowed on the meritorious servants of the public, and the national glory essentially advanced."
Trumbull's words set out many of the goals later espoused by the White House in the formation of the permanent collection, but at this early date few commissions seem to have been considered. A notable exception came during the James Monroe Administration, when John Vanderlyn actually set up a studio in the East Room, which the President asked him to adorn with painted wall decorations. The plan was thwarted in 1819, two years into the administration, by lack of funding. Above at the left is a 19th-century engraving based on a John Trumbell painting by Waterman Lilly Ormsby. In the early years of the 19th century, no portrait but Washington's was commissioned for the White House by Congress. Perhaps the first few Presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson among them, suffered neglect because of the reverence accorded their predecessor. Moreover, public acquisition of their portraits at that time would have reflected an interest in current events rather than in history.