The six Utagawa Kunitsuru paintings hung in the Decatur House’s California parlor on the second floor from the late 1870s until the beginning of the 21st century. The more than century-long presence of this series became a trademark of the Decatur House’s interior space. The earliest known photographs of the Decatur House interiors showing these paintings are from the Historic American Building Survey of 1937.
As artwork, Kunitsuru’s paintings provide a beautiful example of the Japanese artistic tradition. The subject matter appears to be a representation of the seasons. The first figural panel depicts a woman in an early spring setting, surrounded by a plum tree with an open umbrella as either snow or blossom leaves fall; the plumb symbolizing daring character. The second depicts a man standing, carrying a sword, presumably a samurai. The third panel, one of the two landscape scenes, shows a pair of cranes under a Cherry Blossom, or sakura, tree, indicating fidelity or strong bonds. The fourth panel shows a woman with a shamisen stringed instrument, surrounded by another blossoming tree, in front of what may be a building. The fifth panel depicts a winter scene as a hunched over woman marches through a snowstorm. This panel contains the artist’s signature and date. Finally, the sixth panel, and second landscape scene, shows what may be a pheasant or rooster in a blossoming tree. After consulting with the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery and several local conservation studios, there is no definitive understanding of the series’ intended hanging order. Additionally, each season is not equally represented. It is possible that these six could have been from a larger set of twelve, each depicting the twelve months of the lunar calendar year, rather than just the seasons.
Their current state as kakemono-style hanging paintings is most likely not original. From architectural research and examination of the second floor parlor walls, the paintings’ prior manner of hanging in Decatur House was as a type of wallpaper. Each silk panel was glued and nailed to the wall and then framed with a printed decorative wallpaper border, which has been preserved and still exist on the walls today. Prior to their application to the wall, they were likely originally made as hanging scrolls. Presumably, after several years, the moisture of the plaster walls began to weaken the fabric, and the paintings were removed from the wall, and adhered to a board, framed in an interpretation of the Japanese kakemono-style hanging system–as each is now attached to wood pulp board and bordered with brocade.
Once conserved, the paintings will serve an important educational role, as both artwork and as important tools in teaching American presidential, political, and cultural history.
A petition filed in 1862 by Augusta McBlair, a descendant of Provey Gadsby and noted hotelier John Gadsby, offers additional evidence for the history of enslaved persons at the Decatur House. This petition included Nancy Syphax, aged 53, who was listed as a “good nurse, house servant & laundress & is worth $800.” The petition also described Henry King, aged 53, as “a good carpenter, brick layer & general mechanic & first-class waiter & market man,” who was “valued at $1000.” Undoubtedly, the McBlair family hired out their slaves, a common practice in the city at this time. Many of the enslaved people noted in the McBlair Petition had once been housed in the slave quarters at Decatur House. John and Provey Gadsby owned and resided at Decatur House from 1836 to 1844. After John Gadsby’s death, Mrs. Gadsby or her heirs rented the property until it was purchased by Edward Beale in 1872.
It is not presently known if the Gadsby heirs received the amounts recorded in the petition, nonetheless the document provides remarkable insight into the appearance and the lives of enslaved people. Ongoing research by the White House Historical Association and the creation of interpretative materials for the public and future educational programs for K-12 students will help to uncover additional details about the daily lives of enslaved people at Decatur House.
The White House Easter Egg Roll is a much beloved tradition in Washington, D.C. Each year hundreds of happy families come to the White House South Lawn in order to participate in the Egg Roll Race. The President and his family along with White House staff work hard to make Easter Monday memorable and a wonderful occasion as they amiably open the South Lawn to the public.
When President and Mrs. Richard M. Nixon took residence at the White House in 1969, the wear and tear of thousands of earlier visitors and guests necessitated improvements. From the beginning Mrs. Nixon was keenly aware of the need to support a program for the acquisition of artwork and objects for the collection and played a major role in fulfilling this need.
Acquisitions to the White House Collection during the Nixon administration were substantial bringing more than 600 pieces of art, furniture, chandeliers, notable examples of china services from past administrations, and carpets among other things to the White House. Mrs. Nixon considered the iconic portrait of Dolley Madison painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1804 to be the most important acquisition (loaned from the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in 1970 and acquired by the White House through the gift of Walter H. and Phyllis J. Shorenstein Foundation, 1994).
In 1970, First Lady Patricia Nixon and the Committee for the Preservation of the White House began a program to furnish the Red, Green, and Blue Rooms in high quality American decorative arts from the early 19th century. Major examples by cabinetmakers Duncan Phyfe and Charles-Honore Lannuier were acquired for the Green and Red Rooms.
Lonnie G. Bunch, III, Founding Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, provided introductory remarks on the important role museums and historical sites play in promoting the visibility of African American history. The keynote address was given by Spencer Crew, Robinson Professor of American, African American and Public History, George Mason University, who set the historical and cultural context for the day’s lectures.
For the rest of the day, presentations by five scholars gave glimpses of new research on the lives of the free and enslaved community in and around Lafayette Square. The program ended with a discussion and audience Q&A with four descendants of the storied DePriest, Jennings, Syphax, and Wormley families.
Registration for the event reached capacity several weeks in advance of the symposium, so if you weren’t able to attend, you will soon be able to watch the program broadcast on CSPAN. Check back for details.
The Center is located at Decatur House, a National Trust historic site operated by the White House Historical Association. Current conservation measures are being undertaken, so we are grateful that we could cooperate with St. John’s Church to bring this event to the public.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.
From the streets of Selma to the walls of the White House, Martin Luther King, Jr. worked tirelessly for the civil rights of African-Americans, and ultimately human rights for everyone. Enjoy this slideshow of photographs that document his influence on four presidential administrations.
Since Mrs. Kennedy began efforts to restore the historic integrity to the public rooms of the White House in 1961, every First Lady has taken an active interest in and supported the work of the White House Historical Association.
The reverse side of the 2011 Theodore Roosevelt ornament is a colorized scene of the family’s discovery of Archie’s hidden Christmas tree found in a seamstress’s closet in 1903.
The discovery of the tree, defying the president’s ban, was a popular Christmas illustration for a story that ran in Ladies Home Journal underscoring the simplicity of the Roosevelt family’s Christmas decorations and the president’s conservation ethic. Holly and candle motifs from that article inspired the design of the ornament’s gold plated brass frame.
Since 1981, the White House Historical Association has produced an annual White House Christmas ornament that celebrates the life and presidency of each United States President. Each year, careful consideration goes into the theme and design of each ornament and the one that best honors and reflects the president is selected.
The front of the 2011 Theodore Roosevelt ornament is a colorized reproduction of a Harper’s Weekly political cartoon by William A. Rogers that captured the anticipation associated with the Roosevelt family’s first Christmas at the White House in 1901.
Original cartoon by William A. Rogers as it appeared in Harper’s Weekly.
It reflects the excitement President Roosevelt and his lively young family brought to life at the White House. There had been no children in the White House for more than a decade so the caption noted, “I hear that there are some kids in the White House this year.” The similarity of the drawing of a jolly and rotund Santa Claus with his white flowing beard was popularized in later twentieth century advertising and reflects an evolution of the modern identity of Santa Claus from cartoonist Thomas Nast’s elf-like Santa in Harper’s Weekly in 1862, the Rogers 1901 version on this ornament, to artist Haddon Sundblom’s famous 1931 red-suited Santa for a Coca Cola ad campaign.
The David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History at Decatur House.
The White House Historical Association announced a gift of $10 million from philanthropist and former White House aide David M. Rubenstein to establish an education and research institute for White House history.
The David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History will feature an innovative and digital and online resource center, interactive and immersive new educational experiences, and new programs to engage the community. Expected to be fully operational in 2013, the Center will be located at Decatur House, a National Trust site owned by the National Trust and operated by the White House Historical Association. Read more