Arts Everyday Living: U.S. Presidents and the Arts—A Vision for the Nation

George Healy, Abraham LIncoln, 1860, oil on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase Gallery Fund), now at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


U.S. Presidents and the Arts: A Vision for the Nation

When was the last time you heard an American president talk about the arts, particularly their importance in society overall? Back on February 18, 1784, in a letter to a local bookseller in Alexandria, Virginia, the country’s first president, George Washington, wrote that “to encourage literature and the arts is a duty which every good citizen owes to his country.” Did other presidents follow this advice over the next 241 years?

The answer is yes and here are 7 ways that U.S. presidents have made contributions to the artistic health of the country.

FDR and the WPA.  The first and only time professional artists, from painters to musicians to writers, were directly employed by the U.S. government was under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. For in 1935 during the Great Depression, FDR signed into law the WPA or Works Progress Administration which provided jobs in the areas of visual art, music, drama, and writing. As a result, thousands of works of art were produced including large scale murals that still decorate post offices, court houses, and schools today. Plays and concerts were also performed in front of millions of Americans and writers completed historical guides for every state. Among the participants in the program were Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Jacob Lawrence, John Steinbeck, Studs Terkel and countless others. The WPA program for the arts ended during World War II.

Teddy Roosevelt and the National Art Museums Mall. In 2023 the Smithsonian Institution in Washington,D.C., has one of the largest complexes of art museums in the world. But in 1906, negotiations for establishing the Smithsonian’s first art museum, the Freer Gallery, had broken down. Detroit millionaire Charles Lang Freer and the regents of the SI were unable to agree on how the priceless gift of Asian and American art should be displayed. Only the intervention of then President Theodore Roosevelt renewed talks guaranteeing the establishment of the Freer Gallery of Art. Thanks to Roosevelt’s foresight, visitors can now visit not only the Freer (with its present collection of some 26,000 objects), but 5 other art museums located on or near the National Mall.

John F. Kennedy: A Vision for the Nation. When 43 year old John F. Kennedy invited poet Robert Frost to speak at his inauguration in January, 1961, it signaled the start of a new era in the arts.  He and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy used the White House as a national showcase, especially for concerts and dances as well as Mrs. Kennedy’s renovation of the building itself. The Kennedys, too, were instrumental in bringing the most famous painting of the world, the Mona Lisa, for public exhibition in both New York City and Washington, D.C. in 1963, attracting a combined total of almost 2 million visitors. Kennedy also created a Special Consultant on the Arts and encouraged congressional hearings that eventually led to the formation of the National Endowment for the Arts after his death.

Lyndon Johnson and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation establishing the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency dedicated to funding artistic projects and initiatives throughout the United States. Now, approaching its sixth decade, the NEA has survived threats of budget cuts and even elimination.

Thomas Jefferson: Master Architect. Did you know that Thomas Jefferson submitted his own architectural plan for the U.S. Capitol building? Although it wasn’t accepted, the third U.S. president did eventually realize his artistic ambitions with his innovative designs for his home at Monticello and the campus of the University of Virginia (its building style and layout have been adopted by numerous schools and universities across the country).

The Adams Art Legacy, Founding father and second president John Adams once predicted that he must study politics and war, so that his sons could study mathematics and philosophy, and his grandsons, in turn, might study painting, poetry, music, and architecture, and other art forms.  Although his son and sixth president John Quincy Adams, followed his father’s profession, he did propose the promotion of the arts and sciences through a national university during his own administration. While two generations later Henry Adams did actually become an art historian and writer, almost fulfilling his great grandfather’s prophesy.

Artists-in-Chief. Finally, at least four U.S. chief executives have joined the ranks of amateur artists including two popular wartime generals, Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Grant, for example, studied art when he attended West Point, while Eisenhower began painting as a hobby in his fifties. Most recent presidential artists are President Jimmy Carter, who often sells his work for charitable causes and President George W. Bush, known especially for his portraits of dogs.

Artist George Peter Alexander Healy (1813-1894) was a prolific portraitist, his subjects including presidents from John Quincy Adams to Ulysses S. Grant. His above depiction of a still beardless Abraham Lincoln above was done just before the president assumed office.

Note: This blog was originally posted in 2014.




In the public domain, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The National Gallery of Art does not endorse or approve use of the above image or any of the material on this website. Nor has the National Gallery of Art participated in any projects utilizing the said image.

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