Art for the President's House--An Historical Perspective
The journalist's comment about portraits--"more conspicuous by reason of their contrast with their brilliant setting"--is a telling one, for it indicates that in artistic matters presidential taste was still governed by long-established tradition. Arthur's official portrait, predictably by the fashionable Huntington, was dark and dignified, painted in the conservative grand manner format already established by the patronage of the stodgier Hayeses. The Aesthetic movement celebrated the value of art in the home. Women collected bric-a-brac avidly, transformed their houses with new decorative schemes, and increasingly became amateur or professional artists and artisans. Decorative arts, such as wood carving, china painting, and needlework, became important creative outlets for talented women seeking socially acceptable occupation and employment.
The artistic pursuits of several First Ladies typify the often feminine orientation of the movement. Mrs. Hayes had commissioned the creation of an elaborate set of presidential china, designed by the artist Theodore Davis. Rather than displaying the usual emblematic eagle, more than 400 pieces of Haviland china realistically captured American flora and fauna. A century later a concentrated interest in American themes such as those depicted on the china would drive the White House's collecting of painting and sculpture.
Caroline Harrison established the collection of historic china
associated with the White House and supported the addition of paintings to the
fine arts collection. Besides a portrait of her husband's predecessor,
Grover Cleveland, by the
distinguished artist Eastman Johnson, significant additions included Mrs.
Harrison's image by Daniel Huntington and two Van Buren-related works
bequeathed by a descendant of that President.
Yet contemporary art was
neglected. Albert Bierstadt had lent oils of the American West to the White
House in the hope that Congress would purchase them. The legislators
disappointed the artist, purchasing instead in 1890 a modest watercolor by
James Henry Moser. Virtually forgotten now, Moser had taught watercolor
painting to Mrs. Harrison. The Moser, a less-than-impressive substitute for one
of the Bierstadts, somewhat timidly serves as the first example of a
nonportrait purchase by the United States government for the White House. A
Bierstadt work (at right) was later added to the White House collection.
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