Sunday, March 7, 2021

Did the U.S. Presidents Appreciate the Arts?

After a discussion with one of my office mates I set myself what I thought would be a simple task to see what U.S. Presidents had to say about the arts.  It turned out to be far more difficult than I thought.  Not all went on record on the subject but the attitude of those who did is of interest.  We have so unfortunately learned from the last administration much of the general public follows and believes their Commander in Chief, something which I would have said some years ago is as it should be.

How did some of our Presidents show their appreciation of the arts?  As a matter of fact, our first President George Washington was a great supporter. He wrote “The Arts and Sciences, essential to the prosperity of the State and to the ornament of human life, have a primary claim to the encouragement of every lover of his country and mankind.” He also wrote “To encourage literature and the arts is a duty which every good citizen owes to his country.”

Thomas Jefferson called Monticello his "essay in architecture." Designed in an American form of Neoclassicism it is a monument to his scrupulous study of the architecture of Rome. He acquired a considerable art collection which he personally catalogued around 1809 itemizing numerous paintings after Old Masters, as well as several sculptures by Houdon, and their distribution among the rooms at Monticello. In the spirit of a true collector, he wrote “Never buy what you do not want because it is cheap: it will be dear to you.”

I could not find a direct quote about the arts from Abraham Lincoln, but I did enjoy his comment on a portrait done of him, “I presume, sir, in painting your beautiful portrait, you took your idea of me from my principles, and not from my person.”

One President who was often associated with the arts was John F. Kennedy.  He said, “The arts incarnate the creativity of a free people," and once wrote, "When the creative impulse cannot flourish, when it cannot freely select its methods and objects, when it is deprived of spontaneity, then society severs the root of art."  (I can testify to Jackie Kennedy’s interest in art for the White House as a friend of hers requested we donate a specific object that was needed, which of course we did. Years later another friend brought her to visit our gallery.)

Among the Presidential quotes posted online by artist Marvin Mattelson is one from an unexpected source, Lyndon B. Johnson: “Art is a nation’s most precious heritage.” 

Many Presidents had their portraits painted, but a few were, or attempted to be, artists themselves. Surprisingly among these is Ulysses S. Grant. He painted this rather accomplished landscape when he was 18 years old.

Other Presidents who found a satisfying hobby in painting are Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.

I will finish my meager tale with a story I just read recently, and you may have seen.  It is about a painting, not by a U.S. President, but by another great statesman, Winston Churchill. Titled “The Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque” it was painted in Marrakech in 1943 shortly after the allies met in Casablanca and decided that only unconditional surrender from Germany was acceptable.  Churchill gave it to President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a symbol of the special relationship between two allied Nations.  What makes the story even more interesting is that after changing hands a few times it was acquired by Angelina Jolie’s family in 2011, reportedly as a gift to the actress from Brad Pitt.  It was recently sold at a Christie’s auction for $11.6 million dollars.  What a difference provenance makes!

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