Art and Politics: A Brief History of Presidential Acquisitions

Since the nation's very first president, George Washington, took office in 1789, there has been a history of presidential acquisitions that have enriched our cultural heritage. The White House, which was constructed between 1792 and 1800, has gradually evolved into a living museum dedicated to American history. Its objects - from fine art to furniture and silver to china - are today expertly curated by a dedicated on-site staff who are committed to maintaining the historic character of the house. Yet, how did the collection come to be what it is? Read on to learn more about the history of the White House collection.

George Washington - The Nation's First Presidential Patron

Athenaeum Washington Portrait Gilbert Stuart's original (and unfinished) Athenaeum portrait of George Washington alongside a later portrait attributed to Stuart after the original

The very first presidential portrait was composed in 1795, painted by the volatile artistic genius Gilbert Stuart of George Washington. The work would be neither the first nor the most famous portrait of Washington composed by the painter. Just a year later in 1796 at the request of Washington’s wife Martha, Stuart would create the most famous image of the first President - the Athenaeum portrait. The portrait remains the likeness that is most often associated with Washington, perhaps because it is this version that served as the basis for the engraving of Washington that appears on the one-dollar bill.

Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart from 1797, currently displayed in the White House

However, the work was never delivered as promised to the Washingtons - in fact, it was never even completed - and thus never formally entered the White House collection. Taking its name from the time it hung in the collection of the Boston Athenaeum, today Stuart's portrait is jointly owned by the National Portrait Gallery and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It was Stuart's third, full-length portrait of George Washington that was eventually acquired for the President's House, where it was installed in 1800 and remains today.

Presidential Garage Sales

In spite of the number of people who have graced the office of the president over the centuries, relatively few artifacts remain in the White House from their years of service. It became common practice that when a new president moved in, they assumed complete control over the contents of the house, and many replaced old, outdated items with new fashionable pieces. Congress allocates a certain amount of funds that are dedicated to the care and maintenance of the House and its grounds, beginning with the $14,000 appropriated to John and Abigail Adams in 1800 and capping around $100,000 today.

Abraham Lincoln Dining Chairs A pair of dining chairs from a set of fourteen purchased by Mary Todd Lincoln and used in the White House dining room during Lincoln's administration, only to later be sold

But what was done with the artifacts of the outgoing president? Before the mid-20th century, many of these pieces were either kept by the family or auctioned off at presidential “garage sales.” These sales largely explain why an assortment of antiques and art with a White House provenance can be found on the market today.

The White House Historical Association

It wasn't until the 1960s when the the collecting practices at the White House began to make a significant shift. In 1961, Congress declared that all of the objects and furnishings found in the White House were the property of the White House, effectively establishing the White House as a museum. This legislation extended legal protection to all White House objects, ensuring that incoming presidents could not remove or sell them as they wished.

Jackie Kennedy Jacqueline Kennedy during her televised tour of the restored White House in 1962

Perhaps the greatest alteration to the White House collections, however, came in the form of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. It was her efforts that pushed through the legislation in 1961, but furthermore, she instilled a vision of the White House as a destination rather than just a place to visit. During her tragically short time in the White House, she not only helped to establish the White House Historical Association, but she also began the restoration of the home to its former 18th-century grandeur. It was, she believed, not just a home, but a living museum that should reflect the history of the United States.

Art and the White House Today

Today, the White House Historical Association continues to work towards Kennedy's vision, maintaining over 65,000 historic objects, including furnishings, fine art, utensils, glasses and more. When a new president enters into office, the White House's curatorial staff selects new works to display in public areas, representing a changing of the regime while maintaining the historical integrity of the home.

Barack Obama President Barack Obama looks at the Edward Hopper paintings on loan from the Whitney Museum in the Oval Office

Still, artworks can be acquired from outside of the White House collections in a variety of ways. Some presidents or first ladies will purchase works to display using private funds, while others will request works on loan from museums to display during their time in office. During President Barack Obama's final term, for instance, he displayed two paintings by the American artist Edward Hopper in the Oval Office, which were on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The National Gallery and the Smithsonian, both in Washington D.C., are the most natural source of these loans and have been sending works to the White House for decades, though presidents can request works - usually American paintings - from institutions around the nation.

Today, the White House reflects a diverse mix of modernity and history, filled with artifacts from previous administrations, as well as works that reflect the time and personality of the sitting president. Truly a living museum, it remains one of the most culturally significant institutions in the nation.

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