Art for the President's House--An Historical PerspectiveSome paintings that may have temporarily hung in the White House during earlier administrations have been recovered for the collection. These include the Gilbert Stuart portraits of President John Quincy Adams and Mrs. Adams and the Constantino Brumidi paintings, Liberty and Union. Brumidi's works, featured in the Entrance Hall redecorated by the Grants, were removed by Mrs. Harrison's decorator in 1891. The pictures were rediscovered in 1978 by the new owners of the home of the decorator in Connecticut and brought back to Washington.
The program begun by Mrs. Kennedy endowed artistic quality with as much weight as historic importance for building the White House collection, and many of the artistic masterpieces we encounter today have been acquired since that time. The emphasis on quality has inspired a number of important gifts from leading collectors since 1961. Among these are John Singer Sargent's The Mosquito Net (shown above), James McNeill Whistler's Nocturne, Thomas Eakins's Ruth, and Mary Cassatt's Young Mother and Two Children. James Fosburgh explained: "The White House is the setting in which the Presidency of the United States is presented to the world and must be a reflection of the best in American history and art."
Under the guidelines established during the Kennedy Administration and refined over time by the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, the expansion of the collection has continued. The works acquired by the White House represent the geographic diversity of the nation and reflect the values and accomplishments of American society. Views of picturesque scenery, familiar vacation haunts, and dramatic natural wonders take the White House visitor from sea to shining sea. As is generally true of traditional American art, the collection features more scenes of leisure than of industry and only a few urban images. Many examples celebrate old ways and bygone days in idealized fashion, and a small gathering of still life paintings evokes the abundance of American life. From representations of revered political leaders, the collection has broadened to include images of the generic American hero: the cowboy, symbol of independence, freedom, and self-reliance. Nonfigurative work has never been a collecting goal, and virtually none of the pictures in the collection depart from representational artistic traditions.
From its limited origins in historicism the fine arts collection at the Executive Mansion has grown to become "a reflection of the best in American history and art." In recent years documentary emphasis has been tempered increasingly by greater concern for aesthetics, introduced through awareness of America's artistic achievements and supported by the growth of scholarship in the field of art history. Not only the quality but also the preservation and care of the collection are delegated to the Office of the Curator. Since 1961 the standards applied to the holdings of the White House have been those of the museum, not of the usual domestic interior. The decorations and collections, enhanced and expanded by each succeeding presidential generation, will continue to evolve as we move into the next century, the third during which this much-changed building has served its enduring function, as a home for our nation's leader, a symbol of the office he holds, and a repository of art for the American people.