Politics

The Art in the Oval Office Tells a Story. Here’s How to See It.

This is a pretty standard White House photo, the sort of image you have probably noticed dozens of times since President Biden took office a little more than 100 days ago, from newspaper photographs to shots on cable news networks.



Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

But look just past the president and notice the bust of Robert F. Kennedy behind him.


The Art in the Oval Office Tells a Story. Here’s How to See It.


Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Kennedy crops up a lot these days, observing the scene here a few weeks ago


The Art in the Oval Office Tells a Story. Here’s How to See It.


Doug Mills/The New York Times

and nosing in here,


The Art in the Oval Office Tells a Story. Here’s How to See It.


Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

as Winston Churchill did during the Trump administration,


The Art in the Oval Office Tells a Story. Here’s How to See It.


Doug Mills/The New York Times

and as Abraham Lincoln did during the Obama administration.


The Art in the Oval Office Tells a Story. Here’s How to See It.


Doug Mills/The New York Times

You will see the bust over and over because of its particular placement next to the fireplace, behind the chair where the president sits during many meetings. Biden has long cited R.F.K. as one of his political heroes, and sees his evolution from a hard-nosed attorney general into a liberal icon as a sign of the capacity to grow.

But it is only one of the highly symbolic pieces of newly installed art that now saturate the images that come out of the White House.

The art in the Oval Office is ever-present, carefully chosen and deliberately placed


Barack Obama with a portrait of George Washington.


Samuel Corum/Getty Images

adding historical weight,


Donald J. Trump and a portrait of Andrew Jackson.


Al Drago for The New York Times

silently commenting on the moment,


Richard M. Nixon with a bust of Lincoln.


Photo by National Archives and Records Administration, via History Channel

the present, now more than ever, in constant tension with the past.


Biden and Harris


Amr Alfiky/The New York Times


The Art in the Oval Office Tells a Story. Here’s How to See It.


What if the paintings and sculptures could talk? What if they already do?

Indeed, the paintings and the sculptures that are displayed in the Oval Office represent the choices of each American president — subtle and not so subtle signals every administration sends about its values and view of history.

And so although the Oval Office is perhaps not often thought of as an ultra-high-profile rotating exhibition space, in one narrow sense, that is exactly what it is.

“The Oval Office decoration often reflects a president’s view of history and the nature of his hopes for the future,” said Jon Meacham, the presidential biographer whom Biden asked to advise on art for the Oval Office.

“Presidents have a unique place, not only as an object of the historical imagination, but as an architect of it. And so to catalog and take a look around the virtual attic of the Oval Office through the years tells you a lot about what presidents value — not only the stories they are interested in, but the stories they are writing themselves.”


The Art in the Oval Office Tells a Story. Here’s How to See It.


Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Presidential and art historians say that already, Biden’s approach to art appears distinct from his predecessors. In terms of sheer volume, he has included more sculptures and paintings than other recent presidents, in part, experts say, because he is trying to signal his support for an array of causes: labor, science, the importance of compromise and more.

Look at Biden’s fireplace wall:




The Art in the Oval Office Tells a Story. Here’s How to See It.


Most presidents hang only one or two portraits in this space.

Most presidents hang only one or two portraits in this space.

He put up five.

He put up five.

And unlike most of his predecessors, he chose to give the most prominent space above the fireplace to a large portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

And unlike most of his predecessors, he chose to give the most prominent space above the fireplace to a large portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

George Washington usually gets the spot above the fireplace, but in the Biden administration, his portrait has been moved off-center. Lincoln hangs below him.

George Washington usually gets the spot above the fireplace, but in the Biden administration, his portrait has been moved off-center. Lincoln hangs below him.

And on the other side of the fireplace, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton — two men whose political conflicts have become much more widely understood in recent years — are paired together to underscore the need for unity even between those with differing opinions.

And on the other side of the fireplace, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton — two men whose political conflicts have become much more widely understood in recent years — are paired together to underscore the need for unity even between those with differing opinions.

Busts of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and R.F.K. sit below the framed wall art.

Busts of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and R.F.K. sit below the framed wall art.

Their juxtaposition commemorates their legacies, but also shows how people can change: As attorney general, R.F.K. authorized wiretaps of King, but later became one of his allies.

Their juxtaposition commemorates their legacies, but also shows how people can change: As attorney general, R.F.K. authorized wiretaps of King, but later became one of his allies.

Moving to the other side of the Oval Office …




The Art in the Oval Office Tells a Story. Here’s How to See It.


flanking the Resolute Desk …

flanking the Resolute Desk …

Biden has displayed a bust of Lincoln …

Biden has displayed a bust of Lincoln …

and another of Harry S. Truman.

and another of Harry S. Truman.

He has also hung a 1917 painting of flag-decorated Fifth Avenue by the artist Childe Hassam, a work that also hung in the office during the Obama and Clinton administrations.

He has also hung a 1917 painting of flag-decorated Fifth Avenue by the artist Childe Hassam, a work that also hung in the office during the Obama and Clinton administrations.

And he has given precious wall space to a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, chosen to honor science and reason. Gone entirely is Andrew Jackson — a favorite of Donald J. Trump.

And he has given precious wall space to a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, chosen to honor science and reason. Gone entirely is Andrew Jackson — a favorite of Donald J. Trump.

Centered directly behind Biden’s head is a bust of the labor leader Cesar Chavez.

Centered directly behind Biden’s head is a bust of the labor leader Cesar Chavez.

Biden’s office contains at least seven busts of key figures, an unusually high number. They include women, people of color and civil rights champions.


Taken together, the sculptures represent a diverse and inclusive cross-section of America and its history.

The bust of King was put on view during the Obama administration. The Biden administration has added sculptures of Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks and Chavez. And White House curators believe those artworks are among the first of women and people of color to be displayed in the Oval Office.

No painted works by artists of color have been prominently displayed in the Oval Office over the last six decades, according to curators. No female painters, with the exception of Elizabeth Shoumatoff who painted a portrait of F.D.R., have ever had their work displayed prominently in the room.


The Art in the Oval Office Tells a Story. Here’s How to See It.


It was in the 1960s that Jacqueline Kennedy, as first lady, began the transformation of the White House into a sort of grand, living museum. She created the White House Historical Association, hired the first White House curator and established various committees to assist with preserving art. As a result, the White House now has its own art collection, which presidents often tap when it is time to redecorate.

The Oval Office itself is not very large — around 800 square feet. There are a few places where art traditionally resides.





The Art in the Oval Office Tells a Story. Here’s How to See It.

The Art in the Oval Office Tells a Story. Here’s How to See It.


The president can request items from federally funded art institutions including the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum — or really any other museum that is willing to lend.

Yet the collection of paintings that have hung on the walls of the Oval Office since the Kennedy administration is remarkably small — only about 43 different works (and one photograph) spanning 60 years:


List of artworks: White House curator’s office

Most of the paintings have been portraits of founding-father types and other figures from American history such as Washington, Franklin, Lincoln and Jackson:


There were also landscapes:


And there was a photograph of Earth, hung during the Nixon administration.


Astronauts from the Apollo 8 mission gave Richard M. Nixon the photograph, and he had it reframed so it would become “something more suitable” for the Oval Office. He hung the photo to the right of his desk. But it was later replaced with a painting of the White House.

At times, the Oval Office has been more functional and homey than it is today. Franklin Roosevelt, who had the office moved to its present location, barely had room to work on his desk because it was covered with tchotchkes. John F. Kennedy kept a coconut shell on his desk as a paperweight to remind him of the time he was stranded at sea during World War II.



You may have noticed many of the same landscapes and portraits appearing over and over. Or that Kennedy changed tack, filling his office with seascapes and naval scenes. (Go back and scroll fast. It’s kind of fun.)

Biden’s selection of Roosevelt to hang in the prominent spot above the fireplace is a break from nine consecutive administrations that picked a Washington portrait:


Trump’s decorative choices reflected his admiration for Jackson — a president Trump embraced as a populist leader even as some Democrats distanced themselves from him.

Obama sought to modernize his home and office, bringing in a California decorator to freshen the spaces and borrowing paintings from the Whitney Museum of American Art.



Did you notice anything different in that last photo of Biden’s Oval Office?

Look again.

Where is the Chavez bust? The White House moved it onto a pedestal early on in the administration. It’s on the right in this photo:


The Art in the Oval Office Tells a Story. Here’s How to See It.


Doug Mills/The New York Times

The change means the bust isn’t quite as prominent as it was at first.


The Art in the Oval Office Tells a Story. Here’s How to See It.


Doug Mills/The New York Times

But it won’t look as distracting in pictures.


The Art in the Oval Office Tells a Story. Here’s How to See It.


Doug Mills/The New York Times

Artworks

Biden administration

Charles Alston, “Martin Luther King, Jr.” (1970)/National Portrait Gallery

Anonymous artist after Jean-Baptiste Greuze, “Benjamin Franklin” (19th century)/National Gallery of Art

Anonymous artist after Victor Lamkay, “Eleanor Roosevelt” (c. 1993)/White House Collection

Robert Berks, “Robert F. Kennedy” (1968)/National Portrait Gallery

George Cooke, “City of Washington From Beyond the Navy Yard” (1833)/White House Collection

Childe Hassam, “The Avenue in the Rain” (1917)/White House Collection

George P.A. Healy, “Thomas Jefferson” (c. 1842-1860)/National Gallery of Art

Allan Houser, “Swift Messenger” (1990)/National Museum of the American Indian

Charles Keck, “Harry Truman” (1947)/White House Collection

Artis Lane, “Rosa Parks” (1990)/National Portrait Gallery

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, “Abraham Lincoln” (c. 1923)/White House Collection

George Henry Story, “Abraham Lincoln” (c. 1915)/White House Collection

Gilbert Stuart, “George Washington” (c. 1805)/White House Collection

Frank O. Salisbury, “Franklin Delano Roosevelt” (1947)/White House Collection

Paul A. Suarez, “Caesar Chavez” (1996)/Cesar Chavez Foundation

John Trumbull, “Alexander Hamilton” (c.1805)/White House Collection

Unknown artist, “Daniel Webster” (mid-19th century)/White House Collection

Fireplace image: Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Desk image: Doug Mills/The New York Times

Trump administration

Joseph Siffred Duplessis, “Benjamin Franklin” (c. 1785)/National Portrait Gallery

Asher B. Durand, “Andrew Jackson” (1835)/New-York Historical Society

Ralph E.W. Earl, “Andrew Jackson” (c.1835)/White House Collection

George P.A. Healy, “Thomas Jefferson” (c.1842-1860)/National Gallery of Art

Andrew Melrose, “New York Harbor and the Battery” (c.1887)/White House Collection

Rembrandt Peale, “Thomas Jefferson” (1800)/White House Collection

Rembrandt Peale, “George Washington” (c.1823)/White House Collection

George Henry Story, “Abraham Lincoln” (c.1915)/White House Collection

John Trumbull, “Alexander Hamilton” (c.1805)/White House Collection

Fireplace image: Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Desk image: Carlos Barria/Reuters

Obama administration

Childe Hassam, “The Avenue in the Rain” (1917)/White House Collection

Edward Hopper, “Burly Cobb’s House, South Truro” (1930-33)/Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper and Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Whitney Museum of American Art

Edward Hopper, “Cobb’s Barns, South Truro” (1930-33)/Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper and Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Whitney Museum of American Art

Thomas Moran, “The Three Tetons” (c. 1895)/White House Collection

Rembrandt Peale, “George Washington” (c. 1823)/White House Collection

Norman Rockwell, “Working on the Statue of Liberty”/SEPS, via Curtis Licensing

George Henry Story, “Abraham Lincoln” (c. 1915)/White House Collection

Fireplace image: Doug Mills/The New York Times

Desk image: White House Historical Association

George W. Bush administration

William Henry David Koerner, “A Charge to Keep” (1929)

Tom Lea, “Rio Grande” (1954)/El Paso Museum of Art

Julian Onderdonk, “Near San Antonio” (no date)/San Antonio Museum of Art

Julian Onderdonk, “Chili Queens at the Alamo” (no date)/Witte Museum

Julian Onderdonk, “Cactus Flowers” (no date)/Witte Museum

Rembrandt Peale, “George Washington” (c.1823)/White House Collection

George Henry Story, “Abraham Lincoln” (c.1915)/White House Collection

Fireplace image: George W. Bush Presidential Library & Museum

Desk image: White House Historical Association

Clinton administration

George Cooke, “City of Washington From Beyond the Navy Yard” (1833)/White House Collection

Childe Hassam, “The Avenue in the Rain” (1917)/White House Collection

Thomas Moran, “The Three Tetons” (c.1895)/White House Collection

Rembrandt Peale, “George Washington” (c.1823)/White House Collection

Norman Rockwell, “Working on the Statue of Liberty”/SEPS, via Curtis Licensing

Thomas Sully, “Andrew Jackson” (c.1824)/National Gallery of Art

Unknown artist after William Henry Bartlett, “The President’s House” (c.1836-37)/White House Collection

Fireplace image: White House Historical Association

Desk image: Dirck Halstead/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images

George H.W. Bush administration

Frederic E. Church, “Rutland Falls, Vermont” (1848)/White House Collection

George Cooke, “City of Washington From Beyond the Navy Yard” (1833)/White House Collection

Thomas Moran, “The Three Tetons” (c.1895)/White House Collection

Charles Willson Peale, “Benjamin Henry Latrobe” (c. 1804)/White House Collection

Rembrandt Peale, “George Washington” (c.1823)/White House Collection

Thomas Sully, “Andrew Jackson” (c.1824)/National Gallery of Art

Unknown artist after William Henry Bartlett, “The President’s House” (c.1836-37)/White House Collection

Fireplace image: George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum

Desk image: Susan Biddle/White House and The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

Reagan administration

George Cooke, “City of Washington From Beyond the Navy Yard” (1833)/White House Collection

Sanford Gifford, “Seventh Regiment Encampment” (1861)/Union League Club of New York

Victor De Grailly (attributed), “Eastport and Passamaquoddy Bay” (1845)/White House Collection

Charles Wilson Peale, “George Washington” (1776)/White House Collection

Thomas Sully, “Andrew Jackson” (c.1824)/National Gallery of Art

A. Wordsworth Thompson, “Passing the Outpost” (1881)/Union League Club of New York

Unknown artist after William Henry Bartlett, “The President’s House” (c.1836-37)/White House Collection

Fireplace image: White House Historical Association

Desk image: Ronald Reagan Library

Carter administration

George Cooke, “City of Washington From Beyond the Navy Yard” (1833)/White House Collection

Victor De Grailly (attributed) “Eastport and Passamaquoddy Bay” (1845)/White House Collection

Jean-Baptiste Greuze (attributed), “Benjamin Franklin” (1782)/Department of State

Charles Wilson Peale, “George Washington” (1776)/White House Collection

Thomas Sully, “Andrew Jackson” (c.1824)/National Gallery of Art

A. Wordsworth Thompson, “Passing the Outpost” (1881)/Union League Club of New York

Unknown artist after William Henry Bartlett, “The President’s House” (c.1836-37)/White House Collection

Fireplace image: Everett Collection/Alamy

Desk image: Jimmy Carter Library

Ford administration

Albert Bierstadt, “Old Faithful” (c. 1881)/White House Collection

Victor De Grailly (attributed), “Eastport and Passamaquoddy Bay” (1845)/White House Collection

Jean-Baptiste Greuze (attributed), “Benjamin Franklin” (1782)/Department of State

Charles Wilson Peale, “Benjamin Franklin” (1785)/Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Charles Wilson Peale, “George Washington” (1776)/White House Collection

A. Wordsworth Thompson, “Passing the Outpost” (1881)/Union League Club of New York

Unknown artist after William Henry Bartlett, “The President’s House” (c.1836-37)/White House Collection

Fireplace image: White House Historical Association

Desk image: White House Historical Association

Nixon administration

Bill Anders, “Earthrise” (1968)/NASA

Charles Wilson Peale, “George Washington” (1776)/White House Collection

Gilbert Stuart, “George Washington” (c.1803/1805)/National Gallery of Art

Unknown artist after William Henry Bartlett, “The President’s House” (c.1836-37)/White House Collection

Fireplace image: White House Historical Association

Desk image: Bettmann/Getty Images

Johnson administration

George Healy, “Henry Clay” (c. 1845)/National Portrait Gallery

Elizabeth Shoumatoff, “Franklin D. Roosevelt” (1966)/White House Collection

Gilbert Stuart, “George Washington” (c.1803/1805)/National Gallery of Art

Thomas Sully, “Andrew Jackson” (c.1824)/National Gallery of Art

Fireplace image: LBJ Presidential Library

Desk image: LBJ Presidential Library

Kennedy administration

Thomas Birch, “USS Constitution vs. Guerriere”/Navy Department, via Canadian War Museum

Thomas Birch, “USS United States vs. HMS Macedonia” (c. 1813)/Philadelphia Maritime Museum

George Catlin, “Buffalo Bull, Grazing on the Prairie” (1832-1833)/Smithsonian American Art Museum

George Catlin, “Buffalo Hunt under Wolf-skin Masks” (1832-1833)/Smithsonian American Art Museum

Robert Salmon, “Boston Harbor” (1843)/Corcoran Gallery of Art

Dominic Serres, “Engagement Between the Serapis, Captain Pearson and the Countess of Scarborough, Captain Percy with Paul Jones and Two American Frigates off Flamborough Head (USS Bonhomme Richard)” (late 18th century)/Corcoran Gallery of Art

Fireplace image: White House Historical Association

Desk image: Robert Knudsen/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Note: We’ve done our best to be comprehensive, interviewing art historians and presidential scholars, reviewing hundreds of images and checking our lists with the White House and its curator’s office. But artworks come and go, and it’s possible we’ve missed a piece or two.

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