Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the role of the White House Curator's office.
Every Republican President walks into a bar. That could be a joke, but it’s also a painting that currently hangs at the White House.
The White House is a home for temporary residents, an office building and importantly, a museum.
There’s a long tradition – stretching back to the legend of Dolley Madison working to save the large portrait of George Washington rather than have it burned by British troops in 1812 – of artistic preservation. The President can also get access to works from the Smithsonian and other museums around the country for his or her private residence.
The White House Historical Association and curator’s office put a lot of time and effort into curating what’s in the building and on the walls. You can check out the collection in a few different places, and there’s a lot of information on the White House Historical Association website.
And now, in addition to all that, there’s The Republican Club, a portrait of Republican presidents from years past laughing around a table of drinks, sprung from the imagination of Missouri artist Andy Thomas. Without veering into actual art criticism, here’s something similar, a sort of political criticism of the work.
What’s it mean that it’s in the White House?
The portrait was spotted in an image tweeted by 60 Minutes before their report featuring an interview of President Trump by reporter Lesley Stahl. It’s not entirely clear which room the painting is in, although it does feature a large pile of official-looking documents, a DirecTV remote and a large glass jar of Starburst. This could very well be a room where Trump spends some time. We can infer, therefore, that Trump doesn’t mind seeing himself in the company of other Republican luminaries. In fact, we know that he likes to size his own popularity up to other presidents, particularly Republicans. He’s claimed he’s more popular than Abraham Lincoln, which is an impossible thing to verify since modern polling didn’t exist in the 1860s.
How did it get there?
Thomas told the Daily Beast the print was given to the President by Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican. It’s one of a series of imaginary meetings Thomas has painted, but the first to feature Trump. It’s certainly interesting that someone at the White House has seen fit to hang it in such a prominent way. There’s a Democratic version, by the way, that includes Barack Obama surrounded by earlier Democratic presidents. Some of Thomas’ other works include similarly posed imaginations of great Americans like Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin sitting around a campfire.
Who is the woman?
One of the first things you notice on close inspection is that there is a woman in the background of the painting. She also appears in the Democratic version. Thomas told Time Magazine earlier this year that she represents the first Republican woman president (or Democratic woman president).
“As I was doing the painting, I was thinking that these guys are kind of intimidating in a way. That’s the kind of woman that will be our first woman president; she’ll walk right up to that table,” Thomas told Time.
What’s Trump’s role at the table?
Trump probably likes that he’s the center of attention in the painting. He’s right of center, and the current President’s stark white shirt and Republican red tie stick out. It is a bit odd that he’s not wearing his jacket, since most of the time he’s photographed he’s wearing it. Trump appears to be looking at Abraham Lincoln, who, interestingly, is arguably the greatest Republican president. You could take from the painting that Lincoln is telling a story that’s amusing everyone, although Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush appear to be looking directly at Nixon. It’s also interesting that Nixon gets a spot at the table, despite his disgrace and resignation.
Who doesn’t get a seat at the table?
There have been 19 Republican presidents, but only seven get seats at the table in this painting. All of the presidents at the table were elected to two terms, except Roosevelt, who was elected once but served two full terms after William McKinley’s assassination.
Gerald Ford, who was never elected, is nonetheless still prominent, right behind Trump. Others, like George H.W. Bush and Calvin Coolidge seem to want a little more respect.
Faces that appear to be Ulysses Grant, Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover are like wisps of memory and William Howard Taft, if that is him, is nearly impossible to make out. Chester Arthur, Rutherford B. Hayes and James Garfield are presumably in the crowd, but impossible to identify.
H.W. Bush and Ford, while not at the table, are in on the joke, whatever it is, that Lincoln or maybe Nixon is telling. Everyone else doesn’t seem to be in much of a good mood at all.
The drinks are telling
Trump has made a lot of the fact that he doesn’t drink and never has. And so he appears to have a Coke in front of him. George W. Bush, who quit drinking, also has either Coke or iced tea. Nixon, who according to some accounts fell into a depressive overindulgence as his presidency fell apart, has a glass of red wine. He liked expensive wine.
Roosevelt, who faced accusations of alcoholism during his presidency but denied them vigorously, has a metal glass of some kind. Eisenhower has a tumbler, perhaps of scotch. Lincoln’s glass is taller like Trump’s, but it’s empty. Water? Reagan has another tall glass, but it has something red and perhaps a lemon in it. This is a mystery.