Art for the President's House--An Historical PerspectiveBut in the Coolidge era the White House was not yet an art museum. Although Mrs. Coolidge's portrait captures her arrayed in the latest fashion, the First Lady was more interested in adding colonial-style furniture--inspired by period rooms in the American Wing--than she was in collecting paintings and sculpture. In the hope that the American people would aid in furnishing the Executive Mansion, she helped persuade Congress to authorize the acquisition of appropriate antiques as gifts. As with copied portraits, reproduction furniture sufficed when antiques were not available.
A serious effort to document White House furnishings was led by the next
First Lady, Lou
Henry Hoover. An enthusiast of memorabilia and old
photographs, she occasionally directed her energies toward the collection
of paintings and sculpture. Mrs. Hoover agreed in 1930 that the White
House portraits be photographed and documented by researchers from the
prestigious Frick Art Reference Library. Researcher Katharine McCook
Knox's description of her own work on this project demonstrates a
professional attitude toward the White House and its history, reflecting
the enthusiasm for documentation characteristic of early efforts in the
field of American art history. Mrs. Knox recalled entering the White
House and glimpsing the portrait of Julia Gardner Tyler (shown at left) far
down a corridor:
The result of this research was a loose-leaf volume, presented to the White House in 1931, and much used by the President's staff to answer inquiries about works in the collection. The Frick provided photographs of White House paintings for 38 years, a period when, as former curator Clement E. Conger said, "the collection was insufficiently organized to meet the requests of the public."
Mrs. Hoover made use of President and First Lady portraits in continuing the renovations of the rooms. Though the portraits of George and Martha Washington had been displayed in the Red Room since 1902, she had them reinstalled in the stately East Room. In transforming her second-floor drawing room into the "Monroe Drawing Room," she installed a portrait of Elizabeth Kortright Monroe, copied in 1932, slightly more than a century after that First Lady's death. A portrait of Abraham Lincoln replaced a tapestry hung in the State Dining Room during Roosevelt's renovation, and one of John Quincy Adams was hung prominently in the Green Room. That room had finally been completed by the advisory committee convened by Mrs. Coolidge.
The committee continued its work on the Red Room during the tenure of Franklin Roosevelt, choosing a number of presidential portraits to hang on the walls. The creation of these period rooms, using professional advisers, indicated a growing sophistication in the management of the collection; procedures associated with museum curatorship were being adopted.