The story told by art in the Oval Office: A president’s hopes and view of history

What if the paintings and sculptures could talk? What if they already do?

>> Matt Stevens and Larry BuchananThe New York Times
Published : 5 July 2021, 08:57 AM
Updated : 5 July 2021, 08:57 AM

Indeed, the paintings and the sculptures that are displayed in the Oval Office represent the choices of each American president — subtle and not so subtle signals every administration sends about its values and view of history.

And so although the Oval Office is perhaps not often thought of as an ultra-high-profile rotating exhibition space, in one narrow sense, that is exactly what it is.

“The Oval Office decoration often reflects a president’s view of history and the nature of his hopes for the future,” said Jon Meacham, the presidential biographer whom President Joe Biden asked to advise on art for the Oval Office.

Presidential and art historians say that already, Biden’s approach to art appears distinct from his predecessors. In terms of sheer volume, he has included more sculptures and paintings than other recent presidents, in part, experts say, because he is trying to signal his support for an array of causes: labour, science, the importance of compromise and more.

Look at Biden’s fireplace wall. Most presidents hang only one or two portraits in this space.

He put up five.

And unlike most of his predecessors, he chose to give the most prominent space above the fireplace to a large portrait of Franklin D Roosevelt. Roosevelt, like Biden, came to power at a moment of crisis. Biden has largely embraced FDR’s New Deal spirit, signing a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package and outlining a similarly big, ambitious and expensive infrastructure plan.

George Washington usually gets the prime spot above the fireplace, but in the Biden administration, his portrait has been moved off-centre. Abraham Lincoln hangs below him.

And on the other side of the fireplace, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton — two men whose political conflicts became unlikely fodder for a hit Broadway musical — are paired together to underscore that argument and division are perennial.

Busts of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F Kennedy sit below the framed wall art. Their juxtaposition commemorates their legacies, but also shows how people can change: As attorney general, RFK authorised wiretaps of King, but later became one of his allies.

Kennedy crops up a lot these days, nosing in here and there, as Winston Churchill did during the Trump administration, and as Abraham Lincoln did during the Obama administration.

You will see the bust of RFK over and over in photographs because of its particular placement next to the fireplace, behind the chair where the president sits during many meetings. Biden has long cited RFK as one of his political heroes, and sees his evolution from a hard-nosed attorney general into a liberal icon as a sign of the capacity to grow.

Moving to the other side of the Oval Office, flanking the Resolute Desk, Biden has displayed a bust of Lincoln and another of Harry Truman.

He has also hung a 1917 painting of flag-decorated Fifth Avenue by artist Childe Hassam, a work that also hung in the office during the Obama and Clinton administrations.

And he has given precious wall space to a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, chosen to honour science and reason. Centred directly behind Biden’s desk is a bust of labour leader Cesar Chavez.

Biden’s office contains at least seven busts of key figures, an unusually high number. They include women, people of colour and civil rights champions.

Taken together, the sculptures represent a diverse and inclusive cross-section of America and its history.

The bust of King was put on view during the Obama administration. The Biden administration has added sculptures of Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks and Chavez. White House curators believe those artworks are among the first of women and people of colour to be displayed in the Oval Office.

No painted works by artists of colour have been prominently displayed in the Oval Office over the last six decades, according to curators. No female painters, with the exception of Elizabeth Shoumatoff, who painted a portrait of FDR, have ever had their work displayed prominently in the room.

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Editor-in-Chief and Publisher