By Paul Sparrow, Director, FDR Library.
Art is the window to man’s soul. Without it, he would never be able to see beyond his immediate world; nor could the world see the man within. – Lady Bird Johnson
“The Roosevelts’ Art: Personal Stories” is a special exhibit running from April 1 until April 30th in the William vanden Heuvel Gallery at the FDR Library. It will feature 22 rarely seen works from the Roosevelt’s personal collection and invite visitors to examine their lives through the lens of art.
The colorful scene of a bridge over a Venetian canal by Charles Stuart Forbes is not remarkable. Certainly not a masterpiece. But when you learn that it was a wedding gift from the artist, and that Franklin and Eleanor visited Venice on their honeymoon it becomes more interesting. When you see the photograph that Franklin took of Eleanor on the last day of their honeymoon that echoes the painting you ask yourself, what does that mean?
After FDR died, Eleanor took the painting from Springwood, the family home that was soon to be a National Park, for what she described as “sentimental reasons.” It hung in the living room of her apartment in New York for the rest of her life. The artist, Charles Forbes was a cousin of Franklin’s mother Sara. They had a total of five of his works, all showing bridges or water scenes. So what does that watercolor tell us about the Roosevelts? The beauty of art is that everyone can draw their own meaning, but it certainly provides evidence of an enduring affection between Eleanor and Franklin that survived the many challenges to their relationship.
Some of the pieces in the exhibit are deeply personal. A delicate painting of Eleanor by Otto Schmidt, commissioned by her son Elliott and given to FDR as a birthday present in 1933, hung in the Oval Study until FDR’s death in 1945. When Eleanor first saw it she started crying, demurring that “she wasn’t that pretty.” This was Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite portrait of her.
FDR’s lifelong interest in maritime art is well known. “Surrender of the German Fleet” is a work by Bernard Finegan Gribble that FDR commissioned while he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1919. A large version of it originally hung in his office at the Navy Department and is now on display at the Naval Academy. He had a smaller version made for his personal collection, and in 1933 it was prominently displayed in the family residence at the White House. It is clearly visible in a portrait of the Roosevelt family painted in 1934 by John C. Johansen.
There are very few paintings that show multiple members of the Roosevelt family. It took months to schedule a time for the whole family to come together to sit for the artist. When the day finally arrived, only two of the five children were able to make it.
FDR, Eleanor, their daughter Anna and son Elliott are pictured in the Oval Study at the White House.
This painting was exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery in 1936. The other painting visible on the wall now hangs in FDR’s office at the Library.
One of Franklin Roosevelt’s abiding passions was the Hudson River Valley, and he collected books, drawings, prints and paintings of his beloved Dutchess County throughout his life.
The painting “View of Top Cottage” by Mitchell Jamieson captures a quiet idyll in the woods. Unseen is its role as an escape from the stresses of global war. It is just one of 27 watercolors of landscapes in and around Hyde Park commissioned for FDR by Treasury Secretary, and close friend, Henry Morgenthau. A simple watercolor of a small stone cottage gains in significance when it is revealed that FDR designed the building himself and that it was one of the first fully wheelchair accessible homes ever built. It becomes even more interesting when you learn he entertained the King and Queen of England on the front porch, and planned to live there when he left office.
Two paintings reflect the remarkable friendship between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. The two first met as world leaders in August of 1940 at a secret meeting held aboard warships in the North Atlantic. The result was one of the most seminal documents of the 20th Century, the Atlantic Charter. A photographer captured an image of the two men sitting on the deck of the HMS Prince of Wales.
Thomas Watson, the CEO of IBM and a friend and powerful supporter of the President, commissioned Raymond Rogers Neilson to create an oil painting to immortalize what he described as “the most important world event that has ever taken place between the leaders of two great nations.” Watson gave it to the President in 1942, and later sent a copy to Churchill.
In 1943 they met again in Morocco for a wartime strategy meeting at a critical turning point in the war. After completing the Casablanca Conference the two drove across the desert to Marrakesh, and passed by the gate to the famous Bab El Khemis market. The French impressionist painter Marius Hubert-Robert painted the gate and gave it to FDR as a token of his admiration and respect.
The short excursion to Marrakesh had special meaning for both men. It represented a moment of escape, and possibly a view to a more peaceful future. The two of them enjoyed the glory of a stunning sunset from the tower at the Majorelle Gardens, captured in a famous photograph.
What do these paintings reveal about Franklin Roosevelt? They are tokens of the deep bonds that Franklin forged with his closest friends. Bonds that in this case helped the Allies save the world from Fascism.
“The Roosevelts’ Art: Personal Stories” asks a simple question: Can art truly tell us something about a person we already know so much about? One of the missions of the National Archives and the Presidential Libraries is to “Make Access Happen.”
The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Museum and Library holds more than 10,000 pieces of art in its collection, covering a wide range of time periods and styles. Most of it is kept in secure storerooms, rarely if ever exhibited for the public to see. The pieces personally collected by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt are indeed windows into their lives. “The Roosevelts’ Art: Personal Stories” strives to provide a new perspective on perhaps the most important political couple in American history. The pieces were selected not for their value, but for the stories they tell.
This exhibit offers a rare and brief opportunity to explore the personal collection of the Roosevelts and get a glimpse into their complex and remarkable lives. Three new pieces by their great-granddaughter Laura Roosevelt will also be on display.