Surveying Art That Lives in The White House

November 27, 2020

The latest addition to the rich White House Art Collection is Isamu Noguchi’s 1962 bronze sculpture Floor Frame. Selected by First Lady Melania Trump and acquired for the White House Collection with assistance from the White House Historical Association, it is the first work of art by an Asian American artist in the collection.

Accompanying the unveiling of the sculpture, the White House Historical Association has launched a new web collection that features articles on the diversity of the White House Collection, including works by women and artists of color. These include pieces on artists such as Alma Thomas, Jacob Lawrence, Simmie Knox, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Greta Kempton, Georgia O’Keeffe, and, now, Isamu Noguchi.

As part of this accompanying program, the public can attend a virtual two-panel program about the artist and the importance of having diverse artists represented in the White House Collection on December 1st at 10:00am EST, featuring a range of speakers.

  Editors’ Tip: Art in the White House by William Kloss

Art in the White House by art historian William Kloss serves as a comprehensive catalog of the White House fine arts collection of more than 500 works by America's most celebrated artists. The collection includes Gilbert Stuart, Albert Bierstadt, Charles Bird King, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, and Georgia O'Keeffe. First released in 1992 and updated in 2008, this third edition contains a supplement detailing acquisitions in the last ten years by America’s most famous modern painters, such as Roy Lichtenstein, Josef Albers, Robert Rauschenberg, and Alma Thomas. This award-winning volume, lavishly illustrated, presents short essays by the art historian William Kloss on a selection of more than 100 works and extended essays on the collection itself by the art historians John Wilmerding, Doreen Bolger, and David Park Curry as well as a catalog compiled by the White House Office of the Curator.

The History of the White House Collection

Evolving and growing over time, the White House Collection was formalized by a 1961 act of Congress, under John F. Kennedy. Beginning with mostly presidential portraits or depictions of significant events, commissioned or purchased by Congress or donated by presidential descendants, the collection grew exponentially under the guidance of professional curatorial staff and contains around 65,000 objects, including 500 paintings.

Each new presidential family that arrives selects new works on display in public spaces and the West Wing, as well their private spaces, in collaboration with the White House curator's office. These choices vary based on political priorities or personal tastes - for example, First Lady Hillary Clinton installed a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe in the Green Room while First Lady Michelle Obama acquired a bright abstract painting by Alma Thomas, the first work by a female African-American artist to enter the collection.

As mentioned above, the Kennedy family played a crucial role in formalizing the White House collection. Due to their advocacy, the White House became a focal point for the arts and cultural engagement during their tenure. Immersed in the arts and humanities from an early age, the Kennedy family created their own path of cultural engagement. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy transformed the White House into an epicenter for artistic performance and expression, but also embarked on a major White House restoration project that led to the formation of the Fine Arts Committee for the White House. Following its formation, they realized they need someone to organize and keep track of the growing collections, therefore the position of White House Curator was created.

Lorraine Waxman Pearce was the first curator for the White House. In 1963, she helped arrange one of the most daring art exhibits in history, charming the French Government into loaning her the Mona Lisa to share it with the American people. The Kennedys restored the White House as a “living museum,” bringing historic objects, furniture, and artwork back inside, and used it as a national stage to display some of America’s finest talents to the world. 

Alma Thomas - Resurrection, 1966. This painting was acquired for the White House Collection with support from George B. Hartzog, Jr., and the White House Acquisition Trust/White House Historical Association. © Alma Woodsey Thomas. Image via Wikiart

Highlights of the Collection

The first work of art that was acquired for the White House was the full-length portrait of the president George Washington by Gilbert Stuart in 1800, one of the most famous portraitist in American history. Highlights of the present collection include landscapes by artists such as Michele Felice Cornè, Thomas Birch, George Cooke, Martin Johnson Heade and Georgia O'Keefe; depictions of important historical events, such as The Peacemakers by George P. A. Healy and Signing of the Peace Protocol Between Spain and the United States, August 12 1898 by Théobald Chartran; works by John Singer Sargent, Theodore Roosevelt and The Mosquito Net; thirty-six marble busts by Italian neoclassical sculptor Giuseppe Ceracchi, depicting prominent men including Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.

Beginning with Stuart's portrait of George Washington, it has been a custom for the President of the United States to have an official portrait taken during his time in office, evoking the history and stories of the nation's highest office and the individuals who have occupied it. Over the years, the US president portraits have developed and turned more into works of art than straight depictions, commissioned from the best artists of their day. Most notable examples are Obama portraits, commissioned from Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald.

In recent years, first families have worked with curators and art experts to expand the breadth of the White House collection by incorporating diverse representations of American life, including works by women and artists of color. The collection includes some of the best American paintings and sculptures, including Jackson Pollock’s Cathedral from 1947, Scott Burton’s Granite Settee from 1982-83 and George Segal’s Walking Man from 1988.

American Voices in the White House Collection

Loans to the White House

Lending art to the White House is a tradition dating to the 1940s. Since the museums had growing collections of artworks and limited gallery space, the White House walls provided another outlet for displaying art. In 1961, Jackie Kennedy borrowed The Smoker by Eugène Delacroix to hang in the Red Room; Lady Bird Johnson borrowed watercolors and drawings, which she hung in executive offices; the Clintons borrowed two paintings, Folk Scene and Lift Up Thy Voice and Sing by African-American painter William H. Johnson—which remain in the White House today; Obama loaned two paintings by Edward Hopper for the Oval Office from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, as well as Thomas Hill's View of the Yosemite Valley from the New York Historical Society, to hang above the head table at his inaugural luncheon on his first day in office in 2009.

The National Gallery in Washington, DC and The Smithsonian have lent hundreds of artworks to the White House since 1945, with loans often extending through multiple administrations.

However, when the Trump administration requested to borrow a painting by Vincent van Gogh from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in September 2017, which many described as unusual, the museum’s chief curator Nancy Spector kindly declined. She countered with a replacement - a golden toilet America by Maurizio Cattelan. Many applauded her snarkiness, while others viewed it as highly inappropriate.

Featured image: White House, South Wing. Photograph by Matt Wade, image via Wikimedia Commons.