Art for the President's House--An Historical Perspective

For the fine arts collection an important trend of the 1880s and 1890s was a pronounced interest in highly fashionable decoration. The occupants of the President's House were not immune to the American Aesthetic movement, which had begun to stir under British inspiration during the mid-1870s. It introduced art principles into the production of furniture and other decorative objects; fostered collaboration among architects, painters, and craftsmen; and placed heavy emphasis on the artistic unity of the interior. Each piece, even a painting or a sculpture, was integrated into a visually complex whole. While this reform movement sought to overturn generations of borrowing from previous styles (neoclassical, rococo, and Renaissance revivals had followed in rapid succession), it also imaginatively reinterpreted the past, finding a special stimulus in Oriental art.

Greater interest in the artful interior was eventually to have impact on the White House collection, as aesthetics began to play a larger role. Choices of paintings and sculpture made on the basis of historicism were tempered as "art for art's sake" gained widespread popularity. Albert Bierstadt, in general an unsuccessful promoter of his own work for the collection, had created several aesthetic tokens, colorful butterflies, in the White House for the Hayes family. Bierstadt would apply oil paints directly to the paper to form one wing of a butterfly, then fold the paper to produce a mirror image and complete the shape. A departure from the portraiture that then dominated the collection, the butterflies symbolize the decorative-interior priorities of the Aesthetic movement. The occupants of the White House would test their aesthetic sensibilities on interior decoration, however, long before they addressed the more complex activity of collecting American painting and sculpture as works of art rather than as historical documents.

Excursions into high-fashion decor stimulated a new art consciousness. The first pieces to be gathered for the White House with an aesthetic eye were decorative objects. Their accumulation eventually changed attitudes toward both the collecting and display of painting and sculpture. As early as 1860 a Japanese delegation had visited the United States capital, presenting the White House with state gifts that included a handsome lacquered cabinet ornamented with abstract embellishments. Two decades later, when Louis Comfort Tiffany and his decorative firm, Associated Artists, undertook a renovation of the White House, they were inspired by motifs from Japan.

This up-to-the-minute aesthetic redecoration of the house was commissioned in 1882 by President Arthur, a sophisticated New Yorker who was himself familiar with the extravagant domestic interiors then being fashioned for merchant princes and captains of industry. The Blue Room ceiling was covered with a shield-and-star pattern, while hand-pressed wallpaper twinkled with colored glass. The mansion's stately transverse hall (today known as the Cross Hall), articulated by the original marble columns, was interrupted for the moment by a sparkling colored glass screen designed by Louis Tiffany and described in this way for the readers of Century Magazine:

The light coming through the partition of wrinkled stained-glass mosaic makes a marvelously rich and gorgeous effect, falling upon the gilded niches where stand dwarf palmetto trees, the silvery net-work of the ceiling, and the sumptuous furniture. Indeed, the only dark tints in the apartment are found in the portraits, which become the more conspicuous by reason of their contrast with their brilliant setting.

The enthusiastic reporter concluded that Tiffany's changes had "metamorphosed" the President's House, which had until that time displayed a "hotel character."

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