- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 7, 2000

BALTIMORE — When George Washington took the presidential oath of office in 1789, the circumstances were similar to when he accepted command of the Continental Army: His country needed him, and he answered the call.
Except this time, Washington had to define the limits for a new type of leadership, setting countless precedents that those who came after him would either follow or react against.
As shown by "Power, Politics & Style: Art for the Presidents," a new exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art, he modeled his presidential style after the very regime he had fought to escape.
A portrait of Washington in a regal pose is the first thing viewers see upon entering this engaging and relevant, if sometimes reductive, exhibit. The portrait, by William Winstanley in the style of a more famous version by Gilbert Stuart, depicts Washington standing amid posh surroundings, with his right arm outstretched and a gold-trimmed, red velvet throne to his left.
"If you were to take the head of George Washington away and put in the head of King George III, you'd have a portrait that would be accepted in any English palace," says James Abbott, the museum's curator of decorative arts.
Washingtonian formality is contrasted with Jeffersonian familiarity in the first two rooms of "Power, Politics & Style." A tailcoat in the Washington style stands beside a dressing gown of Jefferson's, which the third president wore when receiving the newly appointed English minister to the United States, insulting the diplomat.
A populist sensibility, however, is not evident in what's on display. Jefferson's tastes were just as refined as Washington's, perhaps even more so: He looked back to ancient Greece and Rome to inspire his designs.
A bust of Jefferson, sculpted the year before he died, depicts the aging intellectual with a toga draping over his shoulders, his thinning hair combed forward over his wizened forehead. He had little in common with the common people he served.
The same was true of Andrew Jackson, who was perceived as a man of the people when he was anything but. Ralph Earl's portrait of the seventh president, painted while he was in office, shows Jackson sitting in his personal gilt throne, with a ramrod, regal posture. His stubborn leadership style led him to be nicknamed "King Andrew" by his detractors.
Rutherford B. Hayes, a chief executive whose name lurks in the cobweb-filled eaves of our national memory, is one of the savviest in the show. His 1876 victory over Samuel Tilden was the closest ever in a presidential race, and he was also the richest man to win the job.
As such, he poured money into his White House decor with vigor — but also with a refreshing lack of pretension and clarity of purpose. Hayes commissioned an elaborate, hand-painted china set meant to promote national unity, with dishes depicting nature scenes from the different regions of the United States.
While the designs are as far out of fashion today as Hayes himself, they're quite effective in their portrayal of a vast and peaceful nation, regaining its footing after the Civil War.
Other surprises lurk in the rooms of "Power, Politics & Style," several of which are painted in the colors of the ceremonial White House rooms.
Teddy Roosevelt, known as a hard-charging populist who enjoyed shooting large animals, was nevertheless kingly in his tastes. He considered one of his most significant accomplishments to be the redesign of U.S. currency, and two striking $20 gold coins are shown.
A room devoted to John and Jacqueline Kennedy, undisputed masters of image manipulation, reveals that the president had a hand in the design of ceremonial paperweights, including one in the style of a calendar that he presented to the staff members who helped him weather the Cuban missile crisis.
The most daring use of art to promote an image comes from Jimmy Carter, who commissioned lithographs of his inauguration ceremony from five contemporary artists — including Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. The works are innovative in their way of looking at a modern leader, yet express unabashed hope for the future.
Mr. Abbott says he admires Mr. Carter's sincerity. "He remained true to the simplicity of his presidency. He didn't sway or alter the images associated with him," he says.
This is in marked contrast to Richard Nixon. Trying to distance himself from the Texas-sized familiarity of Lyndon Johnson, Mr. Nixon commissioned gaudy, military-style dress uniforms for the White House security detail. They were only used once, at a reception for British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and were ridiculed in the media.
"Power, Politics and Style" has so much ground to cover, though, that the objects chosen can't always back up the ideas behind the exhibit. A placard informs visitors that Martin Van Buren was ridiculed on the floor of the House for his lavish tastes and that a published report of his finery may have contributed to his failure to win re-election. But not a single piece of his is included.
Some presidents escape criticism with remarkable ease.
James Buchanan, who bungled through four years in office at the onset of the Civil War, is praised for his skill as an international diplomat. He meant to present a regal image that would assert the power of the federal government as Southern states mulled secession. It didn't work, and the sterling silver candelabras from Buchanan's White House do nothing to assert the nobility of his effort.
Still, "Power, Politics and Style," which runs through Jan. 7, is smart and timely, demonstrating that the question Washington posed at the onset of his presidency — how best to present a leadership style to the nation — will always be debated.

WHAT: "Power, Politics & Style: Art for the Presidents"

WHERE: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive at North Charles and 31st streets, Baltimore

WHEN: 11 a.m. Wednesday through Friday, 5 to 9 p.m. first Thursday of each month and 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, through Jan. 7

TICKETS: $6 general admission, $4 for seniors and full-time students and free on Thursday night and for those younger than 18

PHONE: 410/396-7100 or www.artbma.org

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