Presidential thoughts on art
Special to The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — Art hardly ever comes up as a campaign issue in presidential elections.
But once voters decide, the artistic tastes of the first family become well known from the pieces they choose to adorn the White House.
Barack Obama has long taken pride in his artistic interests, taking Michelle to the Art Institute of Chicago on their first date, where he impressed his future wife with his knowledge of both the old masters and modern art.
When the couple moved into the White House, they selected bright, sharp, modern abstractions for the most part, from artists such as Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Rauschenberg and Alma Thomas among their 47 selections lent from the national collection.
Much less is known about what kind of art hangs in Mitt Romney’s homes.
But Romney has the kind of direct artistic connection that Obama does not:
He is descended from the family of the famed 18th-century English portraitist who shares the name of the candidate’s father, George Romney.
The earlier, equally famous George Romney (1734-1802) ranked behind only Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough as the top English portrait painter of his era, with his work still hanging in many top museums.
Should Romney be elected, he could choose from eight portraits and nine drawings from the National Gallery of Art, where notes describe the artist as “introverted and neurotic,” refusing to accept an invitation to join the Royal Academy though it was only through that membership that he could concentrate on his real interest, which was narrative or historical scenes.
Many of those works ended up in Washington, as well. The Folger Shakespeare Library, with nearly 500 works, has the second-largest collection of Romney drawings in America.
Still, Romney spent most of his career employed by top British society to depict their grand lives.
“This cursed portrait painting!” he is said to have muttered.
“How I am shackled with it!” (using a word, curiously, that became an issue in the current election).
Are there portraits by Mitt Romney’s famous ancestor in his homes?
The campaign isn’t saying. Calls to both campaigns were not returned.
Obama has a connection to a 19th-century British symbolist painter, but not by blood.
“Hope” was the name of an 1886 work by one of the most famous artists of his day who is now nearly forgotten, George Frederic Watts.
Part of a series known as the “House of Life,” it depicts the blinded embodiment of Hope seated forlornly on a globe playing a tattered lyre whose strings are all broken but one.
It’s a painting that might not have caught Obama’s attention except that, nearly 100 years later, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright heard a reference to it in a speech by Frederick G. Sampson.
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