We are in the midst of great change in this country. The election of a new president alters the course of American history, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively. Eras of our history are often remembered for the presidents who governed during those times. Everyone has an opinion about a newly elected president, but I believe everyone agrees on this point: history feels alive. We are living in a moment that will be studied extensively by those who are yet to be born.
In our era, we are exposed to an abundance of information about our politicians. We seem to know everything a presidential candidate has spoken, written or believed before their election. But there is information that we do not readily encounter. What are our presidents’ favorite books, films, music, artists? Let’s consider this question in light of the times we’re living in; perhaps we can better understand those who lead us differently.
The closest connection between the Office of the President and the world of art is, of course, presidential portraiture. There is a fascinating history behind these portraits. Theodore Roosevelt has perhaps the most interesting story before the first World War. His first portrait was commissioned to Théobald Chartan. Roosevelt looked at Chartan’s finished product, picked it up, and hung it in the darkest part of the White House. His family eagerly looked at the portrait, teasing Roosevelt by calling the painting “Mewing Cat” because it made him look harmless. Furious, he had it destroyed and another portrait commissioned that made him look more masculine, and more intimidating.
While I find this interesting, I consider John F. Kennedy’s portrait unique among all the others. Jackie Kennedy commissioned her husband’s portrait in 1970. Now, John F. Kennedy’s portrait is not the only one painted after his term in office. Herbert Hoover’s portrait was commissioned 23 years after he left office. But Kennedy’s is unique among other presidential portraits because the painter, Aaron Shikler, interpreted the portrait as a character study. At Jackie’s request, Shikler produced a painting that reflects the pensive, solemn nature of her husband. The White House’s website has a slideshow of each President’s portrait, the difference between Kennedy’s and every other one is striking. I highly recommend it!
Let’s move on to the favorite works of art by former presidents. One of this country’s favorite presidents, our very first, is famous for handwriting each of the 110 maxims of civility from the work Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. His favorite fictional work, as far as historians can tell, is Joseph Addison’s Cato, A Tragedy.
Cato, A Tragedy is a play centered on the last days of Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis, a Stoic who lived in the time of Julius Caesar. Marcus Porcius is also known as Cato the Younger, and was a famous Roman politician and orator who emphasized the principles of Stoicism. He is well know for being the man who asked the Roman Senate to remove Julius Caesar from his proconsular power, and order him to return to Rome as a civilian. The tragedy in this play was his untimely, self-inflicted death after Caesar crossed the Rubicon.
The influence of Cato, A Tragedy is evident in the early Founding Fathers’ public and private correspondences, especially in Washington’s. When he commended Benedict Arnold for Arnold’s military service (prior to his treason), Washington wrote, “It is not in the power of any man to command success; but you have done more – and deserved it.” Scholars argue that this sentiment was heavily influenced by the following quote from Cato, “Tis not in mortals to command success; but we’ll do more, Sempronius, we’ll deserve it.”
Jefferson was also an avid reader. He was famous among his peers for the number of books he owned, scattered throughout his home in Monticello. He owned so many books, in fact, that he donated most of his private collection to the Library of Congress after the British attacked D.C. in the War of 1812. No evidence suggests which fictional work Jefferson enjoyed more than the others. However, he was an avid reader of classical tales. He owned numerous copies of The Odyssey, The Iliad, The Canterbury Tales, and Don Quixote.
Abraham Lincoln was also a fan of classical literature, most especially the works of William Shakespeare. He carried the Collected Works of William Shakespeare with him at an early age. Visiting the theatre, especially, was a cherished activity for Lincoln. He began his law career defending his father’s theatre in Illinois from being shut down, and attended plays regularly, when he had the time.
He also enjoyed photography, and was involved in the appreciation of photography as an art form. Some of you may be familiar with the work of Alexander Gardner, who is generally considered among the best photographers of the Civil War era. He is famous for his photographs of Robert E. Lee, the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam, and other collections as well. He shot the most memorable photograph of Abraham Lincoln, later referred to as the “The Gettysburg Portrait.”
He was Lincoln’s favorite photographer, evidenced by Lincoln’s private writings. I recommend looking up Gardner’s photographs on the Internet, they have remarkable balance and exposure considering the limitations of his equipment.
Let’s change the medium: what about music? What are some recent presidents’ favorite types of music? Dwight Eisenhower preferred peaceful, classical pieces that could calm his mind. He was a big fan of Bach, especially his composition Sheep May Safely Graze. Classical music was the typical answer from each president up until Eisenhower, with the exception of Richard Nixon.
John F. Kennedy’s favorite song was something we all have heard before, an English folk tune entitled Greensleeves.
Jimmy Carter also enjoyed folk music, especially the work of Bob Dylan. Carter wrote, “The other source of my understanding about what’s right and wrong in this society is from a friend of mine, a poet named Bob Dylan. After listening to his records about ‘The Ballad of Hattie Carol’ and ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘The Times, They Are a-Changing,’ I’ve learned to appreciate the dynamism of change in a modern society.”
Ronald Reagan loved Frank Sinatra, and Bill Clinton loved jazz. Perhaps due to his home state of Texas, George W. Bush loved The Knack and their hit song My Sharona.
President Obama, like President Bush, gave different answers to this question over the years. However, Obama consistently mentions The Fugees, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye as his favorite musical artists.
President George W. Bush loves to paint, and many of us have already seen some of his work in the media. Less well known, however, is President Obama’s favorite painting Hope (1886) by George Frederic Watts. It depicts a lone, blindfolded woman sitting on a globe, playing a lyre with only one string remaining. President Obama was introduced to the painting through a sermon preached by Martin Luther King Jr., as well as a sermon by Jeremiah Wright in 1990. Wright provided an excellent encapsulation of the painting’s message in that sermon, “The harpist is sitting there in rags. Her clothes are tattered as though she had been a victim of Hiroshima… yet the woman has the audacity to hope.” Barack Obama later inserted the phrase “The audacity of hope” into his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and as the title of his 2006 book.
Now what about President Trump? What art does he enjoy? Based on interviews through various outlets, this is the best information I could find on President Trump’s artistic preferences. His favorite film, which he has mentioned this on multiple occasions, is Citizen Kane. In an interview from the early 2000s, Trump spoke about the message of the film, “You learn in Kane that maybe wealth isn’t everything; because he had the wealth but he didn’t have the happiness. In real life, I believe that wealth does in fact isolate you from other people.”
He spoke about his favorite novel with Megyn Kelly, All Quiet on the Western Front. His other favorite books are the Bible, and his own book The Art of the Deal. President Trump selected all of the music that was played at his campaign rallies; the bands he picked were Queen, The Rolling Stones, Twisted Sister, and Elton John. Saying who his favorite musical artist is, however, is a bit trickier. Rolling Stone magazine spoke to Donald Trump at a music festival in 2006, where he was attending a Neil Young concert. He told Rolling Stone, “[Neil Young’s] got something very special. I’ve listened to his music for years… His voice is perfect and haunting.” This is as much as we know about his favorite musical artists.
As far as other forms of art, and other artists, I could only find one confirmed interaction between President Trump and the art world, and it was his meetings with Andy Warhol in the early 1980s. While Trump did not initially admire the sketch Warhol made of Trump Tower, he later said of the artist, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”
This is just a brief look into the favorite art of the presidents of the United States. Pictures of all the artwork mentioned here will be available on the website emmitsburgartscene.wordpress.com!