The power of art in the Obama White House
“The arts have always been central to the American experience. They provoke thought, challenge our assumptions, and shape how we define our narrative as a country.”
During their eight years in office, President and Mrs. Obama recognized and embraced the power of art. By showcasing artwork that depicted important chapters in the American story, White House visitors and staffers alike were reminded of how far we’ve come as a nation—and the work that remains to create a more just society for all.
At the Obama Foundation, we plan to continue that mission by inspiring future artists and storytellers through the future Obama Presidential Center, which will break ground in 2021. At the Center, visitors will have a chance to learn more about the artists, organizers, activists, and storytellers who helped make the Obamas’ journey possible, while empowering the next generation to take up the baton.
Take a look back at some of the paintings and sculptures that were displayed in the Obama White House, and get to know a few of the artists who created them.
Left: Alma Thomas in her studio, ca. 1968 / Ida Jervis, photographer. Alma Thomas papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Right: Resurrection by Alma Thomas (1966) White House Collection/White House Historical Association
Alma Thomas was an educator in Washington, DC, for nearly 40 years and only took up painting full time once she retired. During Black History Month in 2015, Mrs. Obama revealed her work Resurrection as a fixture in the Old Family Dining Room. The acrylic and graphite painting was the first artwork by Black woman to hang in the public spaces of the White House and enter the permanent collection.
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama host a Passover Seder dinner in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House, April 3, 2015. (Photo courtesy Barack Obama Presidential Library)
Bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1970)
President Barack Obama meets with young local and national civil rights leaders in the Oval Office, Dec. 1, 2014. (Courtesy Barack Obama Presidential Library)
President Obama moved the bronze bust of Martin Luther King, Jr., into the Oval Office during his first year in office. Cast by African American artist Charles Alston two years after King was assassinated, the bust first came to the White House during President Clinton’s administration in 1990. Charles Alston was a painter, sculptor, illustrator, muralist and teacher in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, and he rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance. He was also the first Black supervisor for the Works Progress Administration.
“I don’t believe there’s such a thing as ‘black art,’ though there’s certainly been a black experience. I’ve lived it. But it’s also an American experience.”
President Barack Obama visits with Martin Luther King III, wife Arndrea King, daughter Yolanda King and sister Bernice King during an Oval Office drop by, Feb. 18, 2016. (Courtesy Barack Obama Presidential Library)
The Problem We All Live With (1964)
President Barack Obama meets with Ruby Bridges outside the Oval Office, 2011. (Courtesy Barack Obama Presidential Library)
In 2011, every time President Obama walked to the Oval Office, he would walk by the Norman Rockwell painting of six-year-old Ruby Bridges entering the all-white William Frantz Elementary School, escorted by four US marshals. An iconic painting of the Civil Rights Movement and the push for desegregation, Rockwell’s oil painting received sharp criticism when it was originally published in Look magazine in 1964.
Watch Meeting—Dec. 31st 1862—Waiting for the Hour (1863)
White House Collection/White House Historical Association
American painter William Tolman Carlton’s Watch Meeting—Dec. 31st 1862—Waiting for the Hour depicts a group of enslaved men, women, and children waiting for President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation the following day. Originally placed in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House, President Obama had it moved to the exterior of the Oval Office in 2013.
In recognition of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, White House curator Bill Allman explained the painting and shared why President Obama selected it to hang near the Oval Office:
These are just a handful of the artwork that was displayed in the White House during President Obama’s time in office. To learn more about the White House Collection, check out whitehousehistory.org.