We Decode the New Art Biden Just Installed in the Oval Office, From a Bust of Cesar Chavez to a Calming Childe Hassam Painting
When Joe Biden took the oath of office as the 46th President of the United States yesterday, staff rushed to prepare the Oval Office for its new resident. They only had five mad hours to swap artwork and other furniture before the incoming commander-in-chief arrived.
Now, art lovers and political wonks alike read intensely for clues about Biden’s priorities and mindset. The new additions underline the values of unity, justice and openness that have shaped Biden’s inaugural address.
What’s new First, Biden’s team swapped a portrait of Andrew Jackson – a populist president revered by Donald Trump – for a portrait of founding father and inventor Benjamin Franklin, a move that was seen as a symbol of Biden’s awe of science.
The Franklin painting, a 1785 canvas by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, was actually already on view in the Oval Office during Trump’s tenure, but is now in a more prominent position next to the Resolute Desk. The work is on loan from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, along with a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. by Charles Alston that has been in the White House since 2000 and is now on the mantelpiece.
The museum has also put two of the new additions to the office, loaning bronze busts of Robert Francis Kennedy – a Catholic like Biden – and civil rights icon Rosa Parks. Robert Berks created the RFK sculpture in 1968 after the Democratic presidential candidate was assassinated, while the 1990 Park piece was by Artis Lane.
“We traditionally lend works from the portrait gallery collection to the White House at the President’s request,” Dorothy Moss, the museum’s acting director of curatorial affairs, told Artnet News in an email. “While we cannot talk about why the president selected these works, I think his choice of figures such as Robert F. Kennedy and Rosa Parks reflects the commitment his administration has made to racial justice, nonviolent protest, and resilient adversity . “
Biden also added a Paul Suarez bust of the late Mexican-American farm laborer Cesar Chavez to the Oval Office, which could be seen behind his desk amid a series of family photos.
The prominent placement of the work, loaned from the Cesar Chavez National Monument in La Paz, California, has been viewed by some as a sign of the Biden government’s stance on immigration. On his first day in office, Biden proposed laws that would allow undocumented farm workers to apply for green cards immediately.
“We’re glad the bust is here,” Chavez ‘son Paul Chavez told CNN. “It represents the hopes and aspirations of an entire community that has been demonized and degraded, and we hope that this will mark the beginning of a new day, a new dawn in which the contributions of all Americans can be appreciated and cherished.”
On the opposite wall is a portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt – who also took power in times of national crisis – flanked by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln on the one hand and Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton on the other.
Here’s the new @POTUS Biden Oval Office via @washingtonpost – check out the Benjamin Franklin painting by Joseph Duplessis as well as the bust of Cesar Chavez behind the Resolute Desk. Opposite the desk – FDR framed by 4 other American presidents. pic.twitter.com/s7dMeFoYpw
– Derek Summerville (@D_Summerville) January 20, 2021
Biden’s pairing with well-known rivals is “intended as a mark of the importance of disagreement within the republic’s guard rails for democracy,” his office told the Washington Post.
Other works of art on display include busts of Eleanor Roosevelt and Daniel Webster and a sculpture of a horseman by Allan Houser of the Chiricahua Apache by the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye, the first Japanese American to be elected to both the House and Senate. Childe Hassams Avenue in the Rain, from the White House collection, hangs to the left of the President’s desk.
Childe Hassam, Avenue in the Rain (1917). Courtesy of the White House.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum, which prominently loaned a Robert S. Duncanson painting for the housewarming ceremony, was also approached by the new government about possible art loans, but was unable to confirm certain items at the time of going to press.
Other new interior decorating options for Biden include swapping out an upholstered brown chair for a brown leather armchair and bringing in dark blue rug, which was last used during Bill Clinton’s tenure.
The military flags that were behind the desk during the Trump era have disappeared, just an American flag and one with a presidential seal in its place (although the gold curtains favored by Trump and Clinton remain). After all, there is now a Stone from the Moon – a symbol of past American achievements – on display on one of the office shelves.
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