Paintings in the White House

How Portraits of US Presidents and First Ladies Are Chosen

The process of selecting a portrait or an artist to paint a portrait for the White House has evolved over the years. During the nineteenth century, presidential portraits were accepted for the Executive Mansion by the congressional committees on the library. It was a rather informal process. No attempt was made to secure a likeness while the president was in office or, for that matter, immediately after his departure. No attempt was made to acquire life portraits or paintings of high quality. The only requirement appeared to be that the portrait looked like the president. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, outgoing presidents were informed by the commissioner of public buildings and grounds of appropriated funds available for their portraits by artists of their choosing. If a president died before an official portrait was painted, often the family chose a likeness for the White House collection. With the exception of the large painting of Martha Dandridge Washington by Eliphalet Andrews (1878), which was executed originally on speculation, no public funds were provided for portraits of first ladies. Likenesses of the first ladies were, for the most part, not actively pursued during the nineteenth century. When made available, they were accepted as gifts; the first of these was of Julia Gardiner Tyler, which she herself brought to the White House in the time of President Andrew Johnson.

Since 1967, the White House Historical Association has taken an active role in acquiring and donating portraits of recent presidents and first ladies. The artists are selected and the completed portraits approved by the subjects before formal acquisition into the collection. With the formation of White House advisory committees—the Fine Arts Committee in 1961 and later the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, permanently established by Executive Order in 1964—it has been a goal to acquire contemporary or historic portraits of presidents and first ladies painted from life, either to represent those not in the collection or to replace earlier likenesses judged less than successful.

By Lydia Tederick, Assistant Curator

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