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In the Biden White House, art selections come with a personal touch

“Pennsylvania Peonies” (2020) by Delaware artist Mary Page Evans, an old family friend of the Bidens, is hanging in the private White House residence. (Somerville Manning Gallery)

From President Biden’s first day in the Oval Office, media outlets have had an eager eye on his decorative choices. Numerous articles have decoded the refurbishments: busts of Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. heralding a progressive agenda; a portrait of Benjamin Franklin signaling an allegiance to science; a piece of moon rock championing American ambition.

For those keen on getting an inside look at the first family’s tastes, the Oval Office is only the beginning. The Bidens have plenty of walls to fill in the White House. Although the first lady’s spokesman, Michael LaRosa, said in May that the Bidens had not begun requesting work for the residence from the Smithsonian or National Gallery of Art just yet, they haven’t gone without art either.

The White House boasts paintings by Jamie Wyeth, who was influenced by the Delaware-Pennsylvania region’s Brandywine School, as well as works by the Bidens’ longtime friend and neighbor Mary Page Evans. In Jill Biden’s office, LaRosa said, there also are a few pieces by their son Hunter, who is an artist. The works the Bidens have hung on the walls thus far reflect a running theme with the first family: a deep connection to their personal history.

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First families have long embraced their backgrounds when selecting art. Jackie Kennedy, a Francophile, added Cézannes to the White House collection. President Lyndon B. Johnson — a Texas native — had his first White House portrait painted by western landscape painter Peter Hurd. Barack and Michelle Obama’s shared love of modern art stretches back to their first date at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Bidens’ artistic selections will likely be compared with their predecessors, who are opposites in terms of art appreciation. The Obamas made informed curatorial choices, highlighting modern art history favorites like Alice Neel and Alma Thomas as well as lauded living artists including Glenn Ligon and Pat Steir. Michelle Obama transformed the Old Family Dining Room into a gallery space for modern art with gifts from the Robert Rauschenberg and Josef and Anni Albers foundations. According to records from the Smithsonian and National Gallery of Art, over the course of their time in the White House, the Obamas received 142 loans from the two institutions. By contrast, the Trumps received 12, among them portraits of presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison by George Peter Alexander Healy, and a few impressionistic American landscapes, such as John Henry Twachtman’s “Niagara Falls.”

The lack of loans in the Biden White House is only temporary — it’s not uncommon for administrations to seek their first loans well into December. Since moving into the White House, the Bidens have restored some of the Obamas’ modern art legacy. Stewart D. McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association, said that as in the Obama days, the Rauschenberg painting is in the Old Family Dining Room. And, according to LaRosa, there are Josef Albers paintings in Jill Biden’s office, while the Vermeil Room features abstract paintings by Alma Thomas and Jack Tworkov as well as two Roy Lichtenstein prints.

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Even as they embrace the Obamas’ modern and contemporary inclinations, the Bidens’ time as second family suggests their artistic sensibilities are less MoMA chic and, at times, more mom-and-pop.

For the Bidens, acquiring art is no high-society, auction-house endeavor — it can be as easy as walking down the street.

“We’ve been in business 42 years and they have been customers of ours since the early 1980s,” said Nancy Bercaw, co-owner of Station Gallery in Greenville, Del., where the Bidens have a home.“We’ve known them a long time. They live a mile away from the shop.”

Unlike the White House, the vice president’s residence doesn’t have a curator or much of an art collection, so it’s up to the VPs to make their mark. Walter and Joan Mondale, who were from Minnesota, borrowed contemporary art from museums in the Midwest, including Minneapolis’s Weisman Art Museum and Walker Art Center. Richard and Lynne Cheney, of Wyoming, referenced the West with Gerald Balciar’s sculpture “Prairie Thunder” and portraits of Native Americans by George Catlin.

Ahead of Inauguration Day in 2009, Biden’s assistants asked D.C. gallerists Chris Addison and Sylvia Ripley to install paintings by Evans, whom they represent at Addison/Ripley gallery, at the VP’s residence. Amid the chaos of 20 crews preparing the house, Addison said in a recent interview that he observed the art going up on the walls and noticed it fell into three broad categories. The Bidens had works from D.C.-area museums by Helen Frankenthaler, Henry Ossawa Tanner, John Singer Sargent and others. They also had Addison/Ripley’s loans, which included art by Evans, Wolf Kahn and Patricia Tobacco Forrester. And they had paintings that Jill Biden chose — scenes and landscapes particular to Delaware.

Many of her selections came from Bercaw’s Station Gallery, including Laura McMillan’s pastel seaside scene “Sand Castle.” The work — which, according to Bercaw, now hangs at their beach home in Rehoboth, Del. — seems to prioritize sentimentality over posh tastes. It’s not hard to imagine McMillan’s image of a young girl building sand castles reminding the first couple of beach vacations with their grandchildren.

As for the Bidens’ style, Laurel Christie, the co-owner of Carspecken-Scott Gallery in Wilmington, Del., says their tastes are “very eclectic.” Her gallery has sold art to the Bidens for several decades, including one particularly vibrant, abstract work — a landscape-inspired drawing by Bill Scott. For the Bidens, where an artwork comes from might be as important as its aesthetics: “They want to support local artists and small businesses,” Christie said.

Evans has lived in Delaware for six decades and has known “Joe” for longer than she can remember.

“Delaware is a very small state,” she said. “Everybody in Delaware kind of knows everybody.”

In the early 1980s, Evans, who had been painting for nearly two decades by then, began coming to D.C. each week with her husband, former congressman Tom Evans. She studied at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design and befriended her drawing teachers, photographer William Christenberry and Washington Color School painter Gene Davis. She spent the summers painting at Monet’s gardens in Giverny, France, where she got to know abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell.

“It’s about feeling,” Evans said of her work. “And Joan used to say, ‘If you don’t feel it don’t paint it.’ ”

It’s that feeling that keeps her coming back to the peony fields in the Brandywine Conservancy near Delaware.

“You see things differently every time you go back,” Evans said. “It depends on the light and the time of day. The landscape changes.”

The peony paintings seem to be favorites of the Bidens. Evans said one hangs in their Greenville home. Another, “Pennsylvania Peonies,” graces a wall of the White House private residence along with Evans’s “Dogwoods.” (Jill Biden even owns a face mask with one of Evans’s paintings of peonies printed on it.)

Somerville Manning Gallery in Greenville loaned the Evans paintings to the White House in January.

“Sadly, I’m probably the only person in Delaware that doesn’t know Joe,” gallery owner Vickie Manning joked.

Manning has represented artists with connections to five White House administrations — both Republican and Democratic. “This is the president of the United States. I don’t care [about] the political party,” she said. “I think it’s really great that one of my artists is recognized and part of that. It’s exciting.”

Of those artists Manning represents is Jamie Wyeth, the grandson of N.C. Wyeth and son of Andrew Wyeth. In 1966, at age 20, Jamie Wyeth turned down a commission to paint the official John F. Kennedy portrait.

“They wanted it full length, two hands in it, that sort of thing,” he recalled. “It didn’t appeal to me.” He went on to paint an unofficial, less buttoned-up JFK portrait with the family’s support. It was displayed briefly in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston and gifted to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in 2014.

Today, that painting is hanging in the study next to the Oval Office. As a political figure, Biden’s career has parallels to Kennedy’s — both making efforts to improve perceptions of American democracy abroad and expand civil rights. But there’s also a personal connection. A fellow Irish Catholic, Kennedy inspired Biden as he was developing an interest in politics. And the portrait itself — in which Kennedy appears to be listening intently to the viewer — reflects the empathetic and approachable persona our ice-cream eating, dog-loving president has long embraced.

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