What These 5 Artworks from the White House Collection Tell Us about America
The White House collection of art may call to mind portraits of presidents through the ages, framed and hung along the corridors of power. But the collection also includes some curious and illuminating works that serve as reminders of the United States’ complex and loaded history, and its shifting values across the decades. We selected a handful of works that reveal pivotal moments from America’s past and remind us—as the country embarks on the most divisive election cycle of recent history—that it’s one we all share.
Charles Bird King, Monchousia (White Plume), Kansa, 1822; Sharitahrish (Wicked Chief), Pawnee, 1822
These portraits of Native American chiefs are two of five housed in the White House collection, painted by Bird King when 17 leaders from various tribes visited President Monroe in Washington D.C. from 1821 to 1822. Monroe intended for these meetings to showcase the strength of white settlers and to encourage the dissipation of any further resistance to their power. Peace medals, given by Monroe, hang around the necks of these two chiefs, Sharitahrish and Monchousia. Though they are painted as noble heroes—Sharitahrish appearing to lord over the land behind him—the portraits convey nothing of the extraordinary cruelty suffered by Native Americans at the hands of European settlers. Bird King’s works serve as one of the few reminders in the White House collection that American independence came at the expense of the country’s first peoples, who fell victim to genocide—and who continue to suffer poverty, poor health, and discrimination today.
W.T. Carlton, Watch Meeting - Dec. 31st 1862 - Waiting for the Hour, 1863
Carlton’s work captures the hours leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation, bringing us into a room on December 31, 1862, where a group of soon-to-be former slaves await the stroke of midnight—the hour that will sound their freedom. The entire painting crackles with anticipation as chiaroscuro reflects the darkness of slavery and the lightness of the emancipation that is just hours away. Of course, the history of African American oppression didn’t end in 1863—but to look back at this moment provides a glimpse at how this historic declaration felt to these slaves who had known only bondage and could now imagine their freedom. The work in the White House’s collection isn’t actually the original. Gifted to President Lincoln, the painting left with his wife Mary Todd following his assassination and its current whereabouts are unknown. The work pictured here is an early sketch by Carlton of the missing finished piece.
George Peter Alexander Healy, The Peacemakers, 1868
In this intensely charged portrait of the Civil War’s Union heros, Alexander Healy captures a meeting that took place between President Lincoln, Generals William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant, and Admiral David Porter in the cabin of Lincoln’s steamer boat, River Queen, just one month before the bloody ideological war came to a close. General Sherman—the visionary, firebrand general to the left—leads a discussion about the terms for peace while the others ruminate on his words. Depicted here as dignified, intellectual leaders, the four iconic American figures are framed by a patterned carpet and curtains in muted shades of red, white, and blue. A rainbow seen through the cabin window provides a not-so-subtle foreshadowing of the impending peace to come after the great storm of America’s battle to define the country’s values has passed.
Alma Thomas, Resurrection, 1966
Though Thomas is among the most important Abstract Expressionists, she is also among the most overlooked due primarily to her gender and the color of her skin. This particular work was acquired in February of 2015 by the George B. Hartzog, Jr. White House Acquisition Trust, with Michelle Obama unveiling the painting following the renovation of the White House dining room. The piece is characteristic of Thomas, whose work features stunning colors dabbed across the canvas, sometimes in geometric patterns. Thomas was a longtime resident of Washington D.C., where she lived most of her life, graduating from Howard University in 1924 (she was the first to emerge from the school’s Fine Art program). This work doesn’t depict a moment in America’s past or present—at least not directly. While it isn’t a history painting as such, its presence in the collection is historical: It is the first work by an African American woman artist housed at the White House.
Patricia Palermino, Fourth of July, 1985
Palermino is an American folk artist from Alexandria, Virginia—just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Washington, D.C.—who followed a self-taught path to the canvas. In this work we see Fourth of July celebrations that are likely more gallant than the ones we’re observing in the United States this weekend. Fireworks fill the evening sky, a parade of soldiers marches down Pennsylvania Avenue, and the President and First Lady (who would have been Ronald and Nancy Reagan when this work was painted in 1985) wave from beneath the portico of the White House. In many ways this is an idyllic, aspirational work that overlooks the often fraught history of the United States; or even the darker days of 1985, a year when the AIDs crisis gripped the nation.
—Isaac Kaplan & Tess Thackara