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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Painting the White House

Cocktails at the White House, 1990, Dick Labonte. If you look closely, you can pick out all the past presidents and their wives (and perhaps a future president).
The Executive Mansion (north side), 1800-14
There are undoubtedly those who might disagree with me, but I'd place the White House in Washington, D.C. at the top of the list of most beautiful homes in the United States. It fact, I might even go so far as to broaden that to include the rest of the world as well. It's also the most beautiful public building in this country. It hasn't always been so, though. Completed about 1800 on a site chosen by President George Washington himself, who also supervised its construction on a regular basis, the original structure was something of a brick and sandstone white elephant. Despite its near-perfect classical proportions and details, it stood out a like pretentious sore thumb amid the wilderness scrub of the new capital city. Yet, even before it was completed, artists recognized its potential beauty and were drawing pictures of the future Executive Mansion.

Abigail Adams Supervises the Hanging of the Laundry in the Unfinished East Room of the White House, painting by Gordon Phillips sometime around 1950.
Even as a burned-out hulk, the President's
House looked stately and noble.
That's not to say that artists flocked from all over the world to the muddy streets of Washington, D.C...except for a British army under the command of Robert Ross on the night of August 24th, 1814 during the War of 1812. But rather than paint the city, they pretty much blackened it, including the White House (below). There, they found dinner on the table, which they first devoured, before setting fire to the place. Today, inside the same sandstone walls, the interior is steel and concrete. Two hundred years ago, it was timber, brick, and plaster, though by that time, modestly comfortable, if not quite luxurious. By then, Abigail Adams was no longer drying the family laundry in the East Room (above). In any case, the place made quite a bonfire. The next morning, (above left) only its sturdy sandstone walls were still standing. It was then artists came to paint pictures of its sad countenance.

The British Burning the White House, 1814, by Tom Freeman, ca. 1980s
Whereas, before the fire, the sandstone walls of the Executive Mansion were actually painted gray, after the rebuilding it took several coats of white paint (probably whitewash) to cover the soot-scarred walls. Thus the nickname, "White House" came to be, though the place wasn't officially known by that name until President Teddy Roosevelt ordered revamped the place in 1901. By that time, of course, any number of artists had painted it; and some of the 19th-century views are among the most endearing. One painter, the famed western artist, Albert Bierstadt, painted the White House sometime around 1857...well, sort of...he painted the view from the White House south portico though a couple columns and the steps can be seen in the foreground.

View from the south front of the White
House, ca. 1857, Albert Bierstadt.
White House north portico, 1850s,
 by Peter Waddell, ca. 2005.
Two hundred years have seen enormous changes in our nation and they are reflected to some degree in the paintings of the White House. Paintings featuring neither the north or south porticos were done before 1828. Paintings minus the east and west wings were from before were before 1901-02. Paintings depicting the south portico with the Truman balcony were done after the complete gutting and restoration of the White House interior during the years 1948-52. And if there's a helicopter in the foreground, that would be after 1957.

The White House Green Room, 
Edward Lehman, commissioned
by Jackie Kennedy after the major
redecoration project in 1962.
The White House is never more
artistic than in the winter
during the holidays.
(The artist is unnamed.)
The President's House as seen by an unnamed Disney artist.


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