Decorating the White House with Smithsonian Art

Continuing a Washington tradition, the Obamas selected artwork from the Smithsonian collections to hang in their historic home

The White House
The tradition of Smithsonian museums loaning art to the White House began in the 1940s.

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The White House
(Maura McCarthy)

Lending art to the White House is nothing new for Smithsonian museums. In the 1940s, when the tradition began, the museums had a growing collection of artworks and limited gallery space. The White House walls provided another outlet for displaying art.

In 1961, Jackie Kennedy borrowed The Smoker by French painter Eugène Delacroix to hang in the Red Room. Lady Bird Johnson borrowed watercolors and drawings from the Institution, which she hung in executive offices. And the Clintons borrowed two paintings, Folk Scene and Lift Up Thy Voice and Sing. by African-American painter William H. Johnson,—which remain in the White House today.

Nine works from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, as well as four additional works by William H. Johnson from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, are now on loan to the White House.

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Black Like Me 2
(Maura McCarthy)

Glenn Ligon
1992

Paint stick and acrylic gesso on canvas

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

“Glenn Ligon is a very interesting artist who has managed to bridge conceptual art of the 1960s with art that has a social conscience to it,” says Kerry Brougher, chief curator and deputy director of the Hirshhorn. “What he often does in his pieces is to take text, say from novels, and pick lines from that text and run it over the canvas until it becomes abstract in a way.” For this piece, Ligon employs a line from John Howard Griffin’s 1961 memoir, Black Like Me, in which Griffin, a white American author, wrote about how he artificially darkened his skin to travel in the South as a black man. The phrase “All traces of the Griffin I had been were wiped from existence,” repeats in all caps on the canvas, slowly overlapping until the words disappear into black.

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The Bow
(Maura McCarthy)

Edgar Degas
(c. 1896-1911, cast 1919-32)

Bronze

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Best known for his paintings of ballet dancers, Edgar Degas began sculpting rather late in his career. Only one sculpture, The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer, was exhibited during his lifetime. After the artist’s death, casts were made of the sculptures that remained in his studio. Degas eschewed the classical figures popular with artists at the time, instead he portrayed the dancers in awkward, offstage moments. “He began to see people as if through a keyhole,” Brougher says, adding that the artist is exploring the human figure in all of its contortions and uncomfortable poses.

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Dancer Putting on Stocking
(Maura McCarthy)

Edgar Degas
(c. 1896-1911, cast 1919-20)

Bronze

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Degas subscribed to the ballet, which meant he had access to the backstage practice areas. It was this setting that inspired most of his paintings and sculptures. “He was fascinated,” Brougher says, “by the difference between the dancer on the stage and what they had to do to prepare backstage.”

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Homage to the Square Elected II
(Maura McCarthy)

Josef Albers
1961

Oil on fiberboard

Hishhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Josef Albers, a German-born artist who moved to the United States to flee the Nazis, taught at the famous Bauhaus school in Germany and was interested in color theory. “Around 1950, he developed this color theory in which he used three colors in the same composition over and over again,” Brougher says, adding that Albers pursued the idea until his death in 1976.

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Homage to the Square Midday
(Maura McCarthy)

Josef Albers
1954-57

Oil on fiberboard

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

After leaving Germany, Albers went on to teach at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina. There, he taught such artists as Robert Rauschenberg. The titles for his Homage to the Square series were usually abstract. “I don’t think he was interested in a one to one correspondence between the title and the color, but Midday really does seem to correspond to the title,” Brougher says. The bright orange and yellow surrounded by blue suggest the sun at noon.

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Study for Homage to the Square Nacre
(Maura McCarthy)

Josef Albers
1965

Oil on fiberboard

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

By the time of his death in 1976, Albers had produced more than 1,000 works in the Homage to the Square series. He called the works “platters for color” because he used the pigments right out of the tubes instead of mixing them to create unique colors. He was investigating the ways colors interact—in this case, how the light grays affect the light blue. Although a part of the series, this piece is smaller because it’s a study for a larger piece.

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Nice
(Maura McCarthy)

Nicolas De Stael
1954

Oil on linen

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Nicolas De Stael, a French painter born in Russia in 1914, studied at the Académie Royale Des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. He traveled throughout Europe and Northern Africa before settling down in France. “He tried to create something between a landscape and an abstraction,” says Brougher. He used a style called impasto, in which paint is applied with a palette knife or brush so that the strokes stay visible. The inspiration for this painting is most likely the French town of Nice, where he lived during World War II.

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Watusi
(Maura McCarthy)

Alma Thomas
1963

Acrylic on canvas

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Alma Thomas, the first African-American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum, was linked to the color-field school that had developed in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s. In Watusi, Thomas is trying to mix together different styles such as Henri Matisse’s cutouts. “She was also interested in the idea that color could generate musical correspondence,” Brougher says. “It was more than creating an abstract painting but trying to create music out of painting.”

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Sky Light
(Maura McCarthy)

Alma Thomas
1973

Acrylic on canvas

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Thomas graduated from Washington D.C.’s Howard University in 1924 and taught until 1960, when she retired to focus on her art. When she began, she used larger blocks of colors, as in Watusi. Later on, she began to experiment with smaller strokes of paint. That became her signature. “There’s a kind of rhythm in all of her work,” Brougher says.

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Children Dance
(Maura McCarthy)

William H. Johnson
c. 1944

Oil on plywood

Smithsonian American Art Museum

The work of William H. Johnson, born in rural Florence, South Carolina, at the turn of the 20th century, was heavily influenced by the Expressionist art of Northern Europe. After living in Europe for years, Johnson returned to the United States to flee the Nazi threat. “When he returned, he dropped the illusion of high art,” American Art Museum director Elizabeth Broun says. “He resolved to change his style. He wanted to paint the story of his people. He painted a number of things that relate to what he saw as the black experience.” Johnson’s new simplified style featured bright colors and flattened images.

Although Johnson had a tragic career—he spent the last 23 years of his life in a mental institution—the works chosen by the Obama White House are vibrant pieces that encapsulate the African-American experience. "Everything that they've picked is on the upbeat side, life enhancing pieces," says Broun.

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Flower to Teacher
(Maura McCarthy)

William H. Johnson
c. 1944

Oil on paperboard

Smithsonian American Art Museum

On a visit to his hometown in 1944, Johnson painted portraits of local African-American families. The subjects aren’t identified, and the reason Johnson chose to paint them is unknown. Broun sees the pair as a mother and daughter and notes the different skin tones. “Johnson was very sensitive to different colors,” she says. “He will often portray a group of African-Americans in the same group with different skin tones.”

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Booker T Washington Legend
(Maura McCarthy)

William H. Johnson
c. 1944-45

Oil on plywood

Smithsonian American Art Museum

This painting depicts Booker T. Washington (1856-1915)—who despite being born a slave went on to become a prominent African-American leader—teaching a group of students. “Johnson had a very strong political conscious,” Broun says. “He did a series called Fighters for Freedom where he painted those who had stood up for racial oppression.” This painting features a shovel, wheels, a plow, books and writing implements, tools that Washington said were vital to advancing African-Americans after Emancipation.

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Folk Family
(Maura McCarthy)

William H. Johnson
c.1944

Oil on plywood

Smithsonian American Art Museum

“Family is a subject he did so often,” Broun says. “They are all more or less related to his own family.” In this painting, each member has a unique skin tone as well, Broun observes. “He uses it as a way to portray racial identity and commitment,” she adds. Johnson altered his image of himself through the years. By the end of his career he was doing self-portraits in which appeared very dark, whereas early on he was lighter skinned as he was in photographs, she says.