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The White House Art Collection – History, Collecting and Public Access

by Jay Winik
October 29, 2018

Jay Winik, Frank News columnist and Historian in Residence, sat down with Senior Historian Matthew Costello to discuss the White House Historical Association and its efforts to make the White House art collection more readily available. 

The Association was founded in 1961 as a nonprofit organization, assisting the White House with historic acquisitions and preservation projects, as well as developing educational resources for the American public.  


Tell me about the Association, its relationship with the White House art collection and why it's so important.


As a private organization, the White House Historical Association provides financial support for the acquisition of American decorative arts, furniture, portraiture, sculpture, and fine art for the permanent White House Collection. The Association also consults with the Office of the Curator of the White House and the Committee for the Preservation of the White House on refurbishing and conservation projects. Since its founding, our efforts have not only expanded the White House Collection of art many times over but also extended to acquiring more types of art beyond traditional presidential and first lady portraiture.


How are you bringing art to the American people?


Beyond our work with the White House, the Association has an educational mission to enhance public understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of the Executive Mansion.  In the last several years, the Association has become incredibly active in the digital universe through its partnership with Amazon Web Services. Our Digital Library was created in 2016, and now houses over 11,000 images, many of which are high-resolution images of artwork, portraiture, furniture, and objects in the White House Collection. This past year we also launched our White House Experience app, which allows visitors to learn more about the artwork in the Executive Mansion as they proceed through the public tour. There is also an option to tour the White House remotely, so users can interact with the same content as if they are there in person.

These digital platforms allows more people to engage directly with the art of the White House Collection. Whether on the public tour or at home, users can now learn more about the artwork, sculpture, china service, and landscape paintings currently on display at the White House through our digital resources.


What's the story of the George Washington portrait in the East Room?


The Gilbert Stuart portrait in the White House is a copy of the original Lansdowne (today housed in the National Portrait Gallery). Stuart was commissioned by the U.S. government and completed the portrait near the end of Washington’s presidency. It was waiting inside the White House when President John Adams arrived on November 1, 1800, and remained on the State Floor until the evening of August 24, 1814. On the orders of First Lady Dolley Madison, a group of men—White House steward Jean-Pierre Sioussat, enslaved worker Paul Jennings, Jacob Barker, and Robert De Peyster—broke the frame and removed the portrait from the home before the British invaded the nation’s capital. They sent it off on a wagon and temporarily stored it in a Maryland barn. It was later returned to the White House in 1817 during James Monroe’s occupancy, and remains the only pre-1814 fire item on display in the White House today.


Why was Gilbert Stuart so revered?


Gilbert Stuart was renowned as an artist, and considered one of America’s finest portraitists. He produced over 1,000 portraits during his career, including the first six presidents of the United States (as well as three first ladies; Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, and Louisa Catherine Adams). He was, in many ways, the nation’s first court painter, vividly capturing our young country’s leaders and their spouses. Over time, the story of Dolley Madison saving Stuart’s portrait became legendary during the nineteenth century, as it was one of the few bright moments from the War of 1812.  While it may not have been by her hands solely, her idea of saving historically significant art from ruin was, in a sense, an act of art preservation.


Outside of the portrait of George Washington, what are some other famous works of art that the American people can see?


Frederic Remington’s Coming Through the Rye is along the Ground Floor of the White House, and Georgia O’Keeffe’s Mountain at Bear Lake hangs above the fireplace in the Library on the Ground Floor. On the State Floor, one of my favorites is Martin Johnson Heade’s Florida Sunrise in the Red Room. There is a robust mix of presidential and first lady portraiture alongside landscape paintings on the State Floor. These landscape paintings also represent different parts of the country. For example, Heade’s Florida Sunrise is in the Red Room but you also have Albert Bierstadt’s Rocky Mountain Landscape in the same room; George Bellows’ Three Children, which depicts Middletown, Rhode Island, in the Green Room; and George Caleb Bingham’s Lighter Relieving a Steamboat Aground in the Blue Room, which likely represents his time growing up along the Missouri River. These works not only represent different styles, artistic expression, and time periods, but also different geographic settings of the American experience.


Why were the early presidential portraits so important?

Portraiture was one of many different mediums that our country’s early leaders used to forge nationhood. For centuries, British colonists considered themselves English subjects from afar and more a native of their respective colony (Virginians, Marylanders, Pennsylvanians, etc.) By breaking politically with Great Britain, Americans needed to create a new identity for themselves. Leaders encouraged writers, poets, painters, portraitists, and authors to disseminate a national, republican culture, one that would resonate with citizens and remind them of their shared history, values, and triumphs. Portraits of the early presidents were also turned into engravings, etchings, and drawings; these were published in newspapers, periodicals, and educational readers. The images of our country’s Founders became a source of pride for many, allowing more Americans to visually connect with their shared past.   


What don't we know about the Association that we should know?


While the Association is likely most known for its annual White House Christmas Ornament (this year commemorates Harry S. Truman), we also have a wide array of educational resources, public programs, and initiatives designed to engage with teachers, students, scholars, and the general public. Our president, Stewart McLaurin, hosts a monthly podcast called The 1600 Sessions, which features White House experts and historians. The David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History has recently started a new research initiative on slavery in the President’s Neighborhood (and at the White House). And finally, we have wonderful publications for a wide variety of interests, including a White House History Quarterly journal and our White House Guidebook (now in its 24th edition). These are meticulously researched and well written for the general public, and are a great resource for anyone curious about the White House, its occupants, and its rich history.