The artistic pursuits of several First Ladies typify the often feminine orientation of the movement. Mrs. Hayes had commissioned the creation of an elaborate set of presidential china, designed by the artist Theodore Davis. Rather than displaying the usual emblematic eagle, more than 400 pieces of Haviland china realistically captured American flora and fauna. A century later a concentrated interest in American themes such as those depicted on the china would drive the White House's collecting of painting and sculpture.
In the early 1890s Caroline Harrison, wife of President Benjamin Harrison, conducted a series of china-painting classes in the White House conservatory. One of her paintings, Flowering Dogwood, appears at the right. An amateur artist, she decorated china blanks with floral motifs similar to those she executed on paper. Interest in portraits of First Ladies now increased as women began to play a more public role in the arts and in American culture.
Caroline Harrison established the collection of historic china associated
with the White House and supported the addition of paintings to the fine
arts collection. Besides a portrait of her husband's predecessor,
Grover Cleveland, by the distinguished artist Eastman Johnson,
significant additions included Mrs. Harrison's image by Daniel Huntington and two Van
Buren-related works bequeathed by a descendant of that President.
Yet contemporary art was neglected. Albert Bierstadt had lent oils of the
American West to the White House in the hope that Congress would purchase
them. The legislators disappointed the artist,
purchasing instead in 1890 a modest watercolor by James Henry Moser. Virtually forgotten now,
Moser had taught watercolor painting to Mrs. Harrison. The Moser, a
less-than-impressive substitute for one of the Bierstadts, somewhat
timidly serves as the first example of a nonportrait purchase by the
United States government for the White House. A Bierstadt work (at
right) was later added to the White House collection.