Art hardly ever comes up as a campaign issue in presidential elections.
But once voters decide, the artistic tastes of the first family become well known from the pieces they choose to adorn the White House.
Barack Obama has long taken pride in his artistic interests, taking Michelle to the Art Institute of Chicago on their first date, where he impressed his future wife with his knowledge of both the old masters and modern art.
When the couple moved into the White House, they selected bright, sharp, modern abstractions for the most part, from artists such as Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Rauschenberg and Alma Thomas among their 47 selections lent from the national collection.
Much less is known about what kind of art hangs in Mitt Romney’s homes.
But Romney has the kind of direct artistic connection that Obama does not:
He is descended from the family of the famed 18th-century English portraitist who shares the name of the candidate’s father, George Romney.
The earlier, equally famous George Romney (1734-1802) ranked behind only Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough as the top English portrait painter of his era, with his work still hanging in many top museums. Should Romney be elected, he could choose from eight portraits and nine drawings from the National Gallery of Art, where notes describe the artist as “introverted and neurotic,” refusing to accept an invitation to join the Royal Academy though it was only through that membership that he could concentrate on his real interest, which was narrative or historical scenes.
Many of those works ended up in Washington, as well. The Folger Shakespeare Library, with nearly 500 works, has the second-largest collection of Romney drawings in America.
Still, Romney spent most of his career employed by top British society to depict their grand lives. “This cursed portrait painting!” he is said to have muttered. “How I am shackled with it!” (using a word, curiously, that became an issue in the current election).
Are there portraits by Mitt Romney’s famous ancestor in his homes?
The campaign isn’t saying. Calls to both campaigns were not returned.
Obama has a connection to a 19th-century British symbolist painter, but not by blood. “Hope” was the name of an 1886 work by one of the most famous artists of his day who is now nearly forgotten, George Frederic Watts. Part of a series known as the “House of Life,” it depicts the blinded embodiment of Hope seated forlornly on a globe playing a tattered lyre whose strings are all broken but one.
It’s a painting that might not have caught Obama’s attention except that, nearly 100 years later, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright heard a reference to it in a speech by Frederick G. Sampson.
That in turn inspired Wright to deliver a sermon back at his own Chicago church titled “The Audacity of Hope.” It was heard by a 29-year-old second-year Harvard Law student who went on to give the same title to his starmaking speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and two years later, his second best-selling book, released three months before he announced his presidential intentions.
And though “Hope” doesn’t hang in the White House — both surviving versions are in London museums — there is a colorful history of a Watts painting that once was hung at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Watts was the first living artist to have a retrospective at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, with a 1884 show that attracted half a million people and had to be extended six months to fulfill demand. He thanked America by donating a painting, “Love and Life,” to help start its first national art collection.
When “Love and Life” was sent to the Grover Cleveland White House shortly after its success at the Chicago Exhibition of 1893, it got no love from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which complained about the nude depictions of the female Life being led up a rocky mountain by the winged male figure of Love. To stem the controversy, it was sent across street to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1895.
When Teddy Roosevelt brought it back to the White House during his term there were still more complaints — about the public not being able to easily see it there. It was sent to the Smithsonian in the early weeks of the Hoover administration and was sold in 1987.
Art has long been part of White House history, dating to Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington, purchased in 1800 for $800. It was hanging there when John Adams was the first president to take residence. It still hangs in the East Wing thanks to Dolley Madison’s famous bit of derring-do, saving it before the British burned the White House in the War of 1812.
Art by Remington, Sargent and Cezanne has been donated to the White House over the years. The Kennedy family donated a Monet in memory of the slain president. In recent years, an effort has been made to purchase art by women and artists of color to balance the collection. A domestic scene by Mary Cassatt was acquired during the Carter administration; Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1930 “Mountain at Bear Lake — Taos,” during the Clinton administration.
The modern abstractions the Obamas chose when they entered the White House are largely in their private living quarters, although some older pieces are in public spaces, including a 19th-century scene from George Catlin, “Catlin and Indian Attacking Buffalo ” on loan from the National Gallery.
There was a minor controversy when a Winston Churchill bust was being moved from the White House about the time a Martin Luther King Jr. bust was being moved in. But White House curators said the Churchill was scheduled to leave at that time (and, at any rate, another Churchill was brought in).
Of the modern pieces, the Obamas chose two works from Josef Alber’s “Homage to the Square” series, tabletop ballerina sculptures by Degas and a work by the African American artist Glenn Ligon, “Black Like Me No. 2” in which a phrase from the 1961 book, “All traces of the griffin have been wiped from existence” is repeated over and over until the letters meld together.
Another painting with text is a surprising choice for the Obama White House. Edward Ruscha’s 1983 “I Think I’ll. . .” reflects a kind of indecision that’s never a prized trait in the nation’s highest office, with such phrases as “Wait a minute. . . !. . . !,” “On second thought,” “Think Maybe I’ll. . .” and in the tiniest type, “Yet.”
As president, Obama has been able to show support to visual art, awarding the National Medal of Arts to Frank Stella, Mark di Suvero, Will Barnet and Martin Puryear. During February’s event, he declared “the arts and the humanities do not just reflect America, they shape America. And as long as I am president, I look forward to making sure they are a priority for this country.”
And though Obama began his presidency by raising amounts given to the National Endowment of the Arts, funding has fallen in subsequent years. His proposed 2013 budget includes a 5.5 percent increase in the NEA budget to $154 million. But that comes after a cut in NEA funding in the 2011-12 budget of 13.3 percent, reducing the agency’s grantmaking by nearly a quarter. It’s still a distance from the funding high point for the NEA of $175 million in 1992 under George H.W. Bush.
Romney, for his part, has stated during the campaign that there would be “deep reductions” in the NEA if he is elected. While governor of Massachusetts, he tried to cut arts funding, as well, although the legislature ultimately overrode his vetoes and increased amounts.
A number of artists are rallying on Obama’s behalf this election season, with 19 of them, including Ruscha, Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra offering prints in a portfolio on sale for $28,000; sales of all 150 would bring more than $4 million to the campaign.
Chuck Close is also offering 10 large-scale tapestry portraits of the president for $100,000 apiece to benefit his campaign.
A disputed but favorable portrait of Obama by Shepard Fairey was the icon of the 2008 election. But detractors have cashed in by painting Obama, too, such as Arizona artist Jon McNaughton, whose depiction of the president either stomping on or flat out burning the Constitution (in a painting titled “One Nation Under Socialism”) are his bestsellers.
Artists haven’t forgotten Romney, with George Vlosich and Matt Ortega painstakingly making portraits on Etch-a-Sketches after an aide alluded to the toy when describing how the campaign could change messages.
San Francisco artist Jason Mecier made news, also, when he used 100 bags of beef jerky to create a pair of portraits he titled “Barack Obameat” and “Meat Romney.” Neither is expected to be chosen to hang at the White House.
Catlin is a freelance writer.