Art for the President's House--An Historical Perspective
Ultimately, this inattention may have been a result of the way the White House itself was viewed--as a home, not as a public building. Since the early 19th century the Executive Mansion has mirrored democratic attitudes toward domestic fashion and decoration, making a self-conscious departure from the grander tradition of the great state residences of the Old World.
In 1817, during the Monroe Administration, the son of Tobias Lear, Washington's secretary, sold the government marble busts representing Washington and two figures closely associated with the New World: Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci (at upper left). Yet inventories taken in the first half of the 19th century document how few examples of the fine arts were then in the White House. The inventories reveal the government's modest response to the lofty aspirations of John Trumbull and others: an engraving (see previous page), most likely after Trumbull's painting The Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776 (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven), and two anonymous panoramas of Niagara Falls, which was widely considered the country's greatest natural wonder.
Following its establishment as the nation's capital city, Washington D.C. grew steadily and after the mid-nineteenth century began to attract more American painters, becoming a center of artistic activity. In 1858 artists founded a National Art Association to encourage government support for the arts. The year 1860 witnessed the founding of a National Gallery and School of Arts, a short lived organization that sponsored lectures and annual exhibitions. Painters and sculptors were also drawn to the city by federal building projects, by the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution, and by the United States government's involvement in western exploration.
George P. A. Healy arrived on the Washington scene in the midst of this new period of activity when Congress commissioned him in 1857 to paint a series of presidential portraits. The series was the first effort to obtain for the White House a visual record of its prior inhabitants. Healy had just returned from Paris, where he had achieved a significant reputation and won the patronage of Louis Philippe, Citizen King of the French, and Lewis Cass, American minister to France. A sophisticated artist accustomed to mingling with politicians, diplomats, and royalty, Healy had already painted such American notables as Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. In 1842 he had worked in the White House, making a copy of Stuart's Washington for Louis Philippe, and he had already met and even painted some former Presidents whose likenesses were still needed for the White House. In just a few years Healy completed portraits of John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler (at left) James K. Polk, Millard Fillmore, and Franklin Pierce (at right).
The series was an imposing one. Healy's Presidents were portrayed in the grand manner: full length, standing or seated, surrounded by opulent accessories, their gestures commanding and their demeanor grave. The artist's work was interrupted by the Civil War, however, and his unframed paintings were temporarily relegated to the attic.
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