Art for the President's House--An Historical Perspective
During the Lincoln Administration the portrait and history painter Francis B. Carpenter was accorded a studio in the White House to work on a picture of the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. This political milestone was, as Lincoln told Carpenter, "the central act of my administration, and the great event of the 19th century." Carpenter was given complete freedom and often sat sketching as Lincoln conducted meetings. "You need not mind him", Lincoln assured his visitors. "He is but a painter." Carpenter worked as history unfolded, struggling to present a recent event rather than to glorify the distant past. "I wish to paint this picture now while they are still in the discharge of the duties of their several high offices", he wrote. And, like Gilbert Stuart, whose name is closely associated with that of his best-known subject, Washington, Carpenter strove to join his name to Lincoln's. He wanted his rendering of Lincoln to be the standard authority. Carpenter's First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation did not remain in the White House; rather it found its way to the Capitol in 1877.
A work that captured the pathos of this historic event was William Tolman Carleton's Watch Meeting--Dec. 31st 1862--Waiting for the Hour (at right), which depicted slaves eagerly anticipating the moment when the proclamation would take effect. The version of this painting presented to Lincoln by William Lloyd Garrison on behalf of a group of abolitionists left the Executive Mansion after the President's assassination. An earlier version of the same painting by Carleton was acquired more than a century later. Moreover, no portraits of Lincoln were secured for the collection until after his death, perhaps because his contemporaries found that available portraits inadequately represented his actual appearance and character. The poet Walt Whitman, for one, complained:
None of the artists or pictures have caught the deep, though subtle and indirect expression of this man's fact. There is something else there. One of the great portrait painters of two or three centuries ago is needed.
The trauma of civil warfare shook America's growing confidence as an international power, and a pervasive spirit of historicism governed the collecting and decorating instincts of the next three Presidents: Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Rutherford B. Hayes. When Johnson moved into the White House during the summer of 1865, the expensive plushes and brocatelles Mary Lincoln had chosen were already shabby. Upon Lincoln's death, ruthless collectors in search of souvenirs had carried off silverware and china, and had vandalized furniture, drapes, and carpets. Johnson's daughter Martha Patterson refurbished the Blue Room, continuing the tendency toward fashion-conscious turnover in White House decor. She placed rococo revival furniture from the prewar Buchanan Administration against blue wallpaper relieved by panels bordered in black and gold. It was she who discovered in the attic the series of presidential portraits that Healy had painted before the Civil War. She showed them to her delighted father, who secured an appropriation for framing them. In 1867 they were hung in the transverse hallway on the State Floor, where Johnson enjoyed discussing the accomplishments of his predecessors with his guests.
During Johnson's term the seed was planted for the First Lady portrait collection. Julia Gardner Tyler proposed to Johnson the idea of a portrait collection of the wives of Presidents (the term "First Lady" had not yet come into popular use). To that end, she donated a portrait of herself, painted by Francesco Anelli in 1848, three years after she had left the White House.
With the subsequent Grant Administration came a return to lavish entertainment and an ebullient redecoration of the Executive Mansion. Enormous crystal chandeliers were hung in the East Room, and golden ornaments embellished a White House dressed up for the Gilded Age. The Entrance Hall celebrated the achievements of the Republican Party, with a color scheme of red, white, and blue carried out in flag, shield, and eagle motifs. Two oval paintings representing the allegorical figures Liberty and Union, by Constantino Brumidi, were installed as ceiling decorations. During the Grant Administration the White House was first considered historical by visitors to the capital city. By calling at the north door, weekdays from ten to three, visitors could view presidential portraits beginning with Stuart's Washington and ending with William F. Cogswell's posthumous portrait of Lincoln, selected by Grant in 1869.
By 1876, the nation's centennial year, public fascination with American history was growing and a colonial revival was in full swing. The events, people, and artistic heritage of the past century assumed a revitalized place in the present. United States history was now considered especially worthy of study; American artifacts were deemed suitable for collection and imitation. Symbolically as well as stylistically, colonial and early federal motifs were adopted and adapted by both painters and designers.