Baltimore Museum of Art

Baltimore, MD



Power, Politics & Style: Art for the Presidents


Hailing the election of a new chief and the 200th anniversary of the White House, Power, Politics & Style: Art for the Presidents tells the story of how American Presidents -- from George Washington to Bill Clinton - -have used everything from furnishings and fashion to portraits and china to carry their message to the nation. Power, Politics & Style: Art for the Presidents is on display at The Baltimore Museum of Art September 24, 2000 through January 7, 2001.

Approximately 100 magnificent objects from 15 different U.S. presidents are featured, exploring their fascinating place in history as well as their symbolic role at the White House. Providing a meaningful visual backdrop to the presidency at markedly different times in American history, the works in the exhibition also illustrate how style can reflect the political, social, and diplomatic ideals of the Executive Office.

According to BMA Director Doreen Bolger, "A sweeping story of style in America, this fascinating exhibition gives an inside look at presidential taste--from Jefferson's refined blue-and-white armchair to Kennedy's rocking chair. On the eve of the first presidential election in the 21st century, Power, Politics & Style is sure to fuel discussion about the future of the White House and make us look more closely at how American presidents throughout history have chosen to convey their vision to the country. We hope that this captivating exhibition introduces new audiences to the glamour of presidential style in America." (left: Aaron Shikler (1922-), Posthumous Portrait Study of President John F. Kennedy, 1969, oil on board, Courtesy of Aaron Shikler and Davis & Langsdale Company, Inc.)

James A. Abbott, Exhibition Curator and BMA Curator of Decorative Arts (see below for more on the Curator), explains "Power, Politics & Style allows us to examine the ever-changing stage that visually defines the American presidency. Each object was designed to convey something specific -- a president's goals and aspirations for the nation. Equally true, each piece emphasizes the point that 'marketing strategy' is not a modern concept regarding the presidency -- it is, instead, something inherent to the position from its 1789 inception. Beyond the presidency, this exhibition allows us to better understand the importance of our visual environment in representing who and what we are as a culture -- and as individuals.

There is also an Activity Center at the end of the exhibition where visitors of all ages can take part in a mock State dinner, don bow tie and white gloves, and design their own official State china. At the conclusion of the exhibition, in January of 2001, the BMA will send suggestions for the new State dinner service to the newly elected president just taking office in the White House. (left: Ralph Earl (1785-1838), Portrait of President Andrew Jackson, c. 1830, Collection: Loan from Tennessee State Room, DAR Museum, Washington, DC, Gift of Mrs. Cyrus Griffen Martin)

Among the many treasures from 15 U.S. presidents included in the exhibition are:


Power, Politics & Style is divided into several thematic sections and begins by examining the distinctly different tastes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Recognizing the importance of pageantry created for the royal courts of France's Louis XVI and England's George III, George Washington commissioned an elaborate "Presidential Palace" and capital city to assign validity to the then-experimental office. Thomas Jefferson, a true representative of "republican" principles and style, opposed the visual grandeur Washington brought to the presidency. He described Washington's "Presidential Palace" -- today's White House -- as "big enough for two emperors, one Pope, and the Grand Lama." And when Jefferson became president in 1801, he brought to the office a simplicity of style that was very much the antithesis of Washington's royal paradigm.(left: Aaron Shikler (1922-), Portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy, 1968-1994, oil on board, Courtesy of Aaron Shikler and Davis & Langsdale Company, Inc.)

The style of eight presidents is considered in depth. George Washington, James Monroe, Theodore Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy exemplify the regal style. The "republican" principles of style are illustrated by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Rutherford B. Hayes. Franklin D. Roosevelt is represented as one of the few presidents who could balance themselves between the worlds of "Royal Courts" and "National Identity." Other presidents featured in the exhibition are James Buchanan, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.

The exhibition illustrates the exceptional craftsmanship of notable designers and artisans throughout history, such as cabinetmakers William King, François-Honoré Jacob-Desmalter, and Pierre-Antoine Bellangé; architects Eric Gugler, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Pierre-Charles L'Enfant, and Charles McKim; landscape designer Beatrix Jones Farrand; fashion designers Oleg Cassini and Philip Robertson; interior designers Stéphane Boudin, Albert Hadley, and "Sister" Parish; portrait painters Ralph Earl, John Vanderlyn, and Aaron Shikler; and photographer Annie Leibovitz.

Power, Politics & Style also features stunning reproductions from the "lost" suite of neoclassical furniture originally commissioned by the fourth president of the United States, James Madison, who served following Thomas Jefferson, from 1809 to 1817. Designed by renowned early 19th-century architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe and manufactured by Baltimore cabinetmakers John and Hugh Finlay, the suite was burned with the White House during the War of 1812. Survived today only by Latrobe's original drawings (loaned for the exhibition from The Maryland Historical Society), the furniture is being reproduced specifically for Power, Politics & Style by Baltimore cabinetmaker David Wiesand. The BMA has undertaken this unprecedented reproduction project to shed light on this magnificent suite of furniture that holds a significant place in U.S. history. (left: American Armchair, 1818, commissioned by James Monroe from Georgetown cabinetmakerWilliam King (1771-1854), mahogany, brass, reproduction upholstery, Collection: The Baltimore Museum of Art, BMA 1998.504)

Upon moving into the White House in 1809, the Madisons (Dolley in particular) wanted to open the house up to frequent receptions and parties. A Surveyor of Public Buildings, Latrobe was asked to bring the mansion's neglected interiors up to presidential standards. Together, Mrs. Madison and the English-born architect created a salon that became the most popular social setting in Washington. The Oval Room (today's Blue Room) had not been furnished prior to the Madison presidency, and Dolley Madison aimed to make it a symbolic reception room for the nation. Though she was said to have quite elaborate taste and be very fond of popular French fashion, her husband -- the "Father of the Constitution" -- intended the presidency and president's mansion to reflect "republican" principles for the new country. Therefore, the new oval room was furnished in true "republican" style, featuring a classically inspired suite of furniture with bold colors and simple design. The suite contained 36 chairs, equal in status and profile, but no throne. (left:

The suite was made up of chairs in the Greek klismos form, with flaring legs and gently raked backs, two "Grecian"-form sofas, and four window benches. The concentrated focus on Greece -- with its ideas of freedom and democracy -- was a visual reminder of the ancient principles that governed the formation of the United States and was quite appropriate for the main receiving room of the White House.

The colors chosen for the furniture - -evoking those on the American flag -- were patriotic as well. The painted white sofas and window benches signified purity. The red and blue upholstery further emphasized the idea of democracy. Red signified hardiness and valor; and blue symbolized vigilance, perseverance, and justice. (left: John Ulbricht (1926-), Portrait of Betty Ford, 1974, oil on canvas, Collection: The Honorable Gerald R. Ford and Mrs. Ford)

The Oval Room, with its new suite of furniture, fresh paint, bold curtains, and enormous overmantel, was completed just in time for the New Year's celebration of 1810. For this exhibition, the BMA has commissioned the reproduction of two chairs, one sofa, one window bench, and one mantel and overmantel. The Latrobe reproduction furniture was purchased as the gift of the Stiles Ewing Tuttle Charitable Trust and Stiles Tuttle Colwill. (left: Service Plate, c. 1892, Manufactured by Tressemannes & Vogt for Benjamin Harrison, porcelain, Private collection)

Power, Politics & Style also features several objects drawn from the BMA's decorative arts collection, including an 18th-century armchair once belonging to Thomas Jefferson. Several major U.S. museums, presidential libraries, and historic houses and palaces are also lending works for the exhibition.


About the Curator

Since January of 1997, James Abbott has served as Curator of Decorative Arts for The Baltimore Museum of Art. During his first year as Curator, Abbott oversaw the reinstallation of the Museum's permanent collections of 18th- through 20th-century furniture, decorative objects, and architecture. Since then, he has focused on expanding the institution's holdings of late 19th- and 20th-century decorative arts and has overseen the acquisition and installation of many interesting pieces, including an elaborate Louis Comfort Tiffany gilt-wood and glass-tile mantel surround designed for the New Jersey residence of one-time art director and president of Tiffany Studios, Joseph Briggs.

Before arriving in Baltimore, Abbott served as Curator of Collections and Coordinator of Education for Boscobel Restoration, Inc., a restored Federal-era mansion in the Hudson Valley. At Boscobel, he introduced changing exhibitions and special programs focusing on the field of American period decorative arts. Among the topics addressed in these special programs was the career and influence of museum curator Berry Tracy; the impact of French interior designer Stéphane Boudin on American historic houses; and defining the craftsmanship of Duncan Phyfe.

Abbott served six years as Assistant Curator for the five properties administered by Historic Hudson Valley -- formerly Sleepy Hollow Restorations. While at Historic Hudson Valley, he formulated a changing exhibitions program, as well as researched and implemented a reinterpretation of the interiors of Washington Irving's Sunnyside in Tarrytown, New York. Abbott has also worked for the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington D.C., and the Vassar College art gallery in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Abbott also serves as consultant to a number of historic house museums, among them Bartow-Pell Mansion in Bronx, New York; The Cudner-Hyatt House in Scarsdale, New York; Rock Hall in Lawrence, Long Island; and the Roslyn Preservation Society in Roslyn, New York. He has guest-curated exhibitions for the Billings Farm and Museum in Woodstock, Vermont; The Scarsdale Historical Society, Scarsdale, New York; and the Stamford Historical Society, Stamford, Connecticut.

His publications include the following exhibition catalogues: American Painted Furniture: 1800 to World War I (1990); Visions of Washington Irving (co-author, 1991); Classical to 19th Century America: The Influence of Berry Tracy on the Historic Inferior (1994); and A Frenchman in Camelot: The Decoration of the Kennedy White House by Stéphane Boudin (1995). Mr. Abbott co-wrote with Elaine Rice a further exploration of the Kennedy White House decor, entitled Designing Camelot and published by Van Nostrand Reinhold of New York in 1998.

James Abbott received his B.A. in American History from Vassar College in 1986, and his M.A. in Museum Studies from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1994. He attended the Attingham Summer School on the British Country House in 1991.

This exhibition is made possible through the generosity of The Richard C. von Hess Foundation.

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