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.
Of the modern pieces, the Obamas chose two works from Josef Albers’ 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 (NEA), 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.