So what will Donald and Melania Trump bring to the White House in the way of taste and style? Their triplex apartment atop Manhattan’s Trump Tower has been described by British design critic Stephen Bayley as a “glitterball of rococo kitsch.” Will this aesthetic lend itself to the neo-classical grand mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?
It’s not unusual for the President and First Lady to add personal touches during their residencies.
Teddy Roosevelt hung stuffed animal heads in the State Dining Room. Jackie Kennedy famously renovated the State Rooms to celebrate the White House’s decorative and architectural history.
The Clintons borrowed a Willem de Kooning late abstract and a cast of Rodin’s “The Thinker.”
Michelle and Barack Obama introduced an unprecedented roll call of 20th-century art, much of it American Abstract Expressionism, loaned from American museums or donated to the White House permanent collection – Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Josef Albers, Sam Francis, Louise Nevelson and Alma Thomas, the first African-American woman to be represented in the White House.
Over the fireplace in the master bedroom, the Obamas hung a 19th-century nocturne painting by James McNeill Whistler.
In his 70 years, Donald Trump has rarely espoused a passion for any kind of art (aside from “Trump: The Art of the Deal,” his 1987 book) although, according to the New York Times, he has seen “Evita” as many as six times on Broadway.
You could say Trump’s buildings are his principal, almost primal idea of what art is. In 2013, he told the Washington Post “friends of mine, they spend these ridiculous amounts of money on paintings … I’d rather do jobs like this (a new Washington Hotel), and do something really that the world can cherish.”
He seems to like Impressionism – or at least the Impressionist who prolifically celebrated feminine sensuality.
Both writer Mark Bowden and Nicole Bryl, Melania Trump’s makeup artist, have reported that the Trumps own paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Bowden wrote in Vanity Fair that, in 1996, Trump showed him around the gilded interior of his private jet and pointed out Renoir’s signature on a painting; Trump didn’t comment on the work, just its value – “Worth $10 million,” he reportedly said.
In a 2012 blog for the Huffington Post, Bryl wrote about “the Trumps’ golden sky palace/triplex” at Trump Tower, with “their majestic golden ‘door’ entrance, the crystal chandeliers, the marble floors, tables and bathrooms, the Renoir paintings and the panoramic floor to ceiling windows.”
Trump has always liked marble and gold. As we all know, his brand is often spelled out in bold in gold – on his hotels and towers, vodka, wine and eau de toilette and anything else he licenses.
For his first television interview as President-elect, he sat on a golden chair worthy of Louis XIV in Trump Tower.
Twentieth- and 21st-century art seems to have entirely passed Trump by. This is despite his eldest daughter, Ivanka, being an avid and visible collector. (Works by younger American artists like Dan Colen and Alex Israel have made appearances in the background of her Instagram posts.)
Now there is at least one artist Trump seems to have championed, not least because it appeared to be good for business: the billionaire court sculptor to the Russian elite, Zurab Tsereteli.
When Tsereteli’s colossal sculpture of Christopher Columbus, “Birth of a New World,” was freely offered to New York in the late 1990s, Trump was an enthusiastic advocate.
“It’s got 40 million dollars’ worth of bronze in it, and Zurab would like it to be at my West Side Yards development,” Trump said in a 1997 New Yorker profile. “Zurab is a very unusual guy. This man is major and legit.”
This was the Trump imprimatur. New York declined the gift along with five other American cities. The sculpture finally found a home in Puerto Rico last June.
When Trump has an aversion to art (or anything else), he is not one to mince his words. He took profound offense at the work of the Turner Prize-winning British artist, Chris Ofili. When Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996) was exhibited at New York’s Brooklyn Museum in 1999, Trump joined Mayor Rudy Giuliani in roundly condemning it.
The painting shows a black Madonna on a gold background, wrapped in a robe but with her right breast of elephant dung exposed. The painting rests on two balls of the same dung.
Trump didn’t hold back: “It’s not art. It’s absolutely gross, degenerate stuff,” he said in a statement to the New York Daily News at the time.
The painting went on to sell at Christie’s in London in 2015 for $4.5 million, making Ofili one of the most prized of living painters.
Trump and his first wife, Ivana, met with the pop artist Andy Warhol at his New York studio, the Factory, in 1981. Warhol wrote in his diary: “He’s a butch guy. Nothing was settled, but I’m going to do some paintings anyway, and show them to them.”
No slouch when it came to brand-making and self-promotion himself, Warhol did a series of eight silkscreen prints of Trump Tower he’d hoped would hang above the entrance to Trump’s apartment, done in black, silver and gold with a sprinkling of diamond dust. But the Trumps did not buy them.
Warhol added to his diary: “Mr. Trump was very upset that it (the series of screen prints) wasn’t color-coordinated.”
He went on to write: “I think Trump’s sort of cheap, though, I get that feeling.”
Since his death in 1987, Warhol’s works, two of which have sold for over $100 million, have become among the most expensive ever sold at auction. Perhaps the screen-prints of Trump Tower are worth several million today, likely to have risen sharply in value since the election.
It’s been a tradition since George Washington for American presidents to sit for an oil portrait. We are still waiting to see President Obama’s, but who will get to paint Donald J. Trump?
It’s a fascinating challenge, to capture a man so loved and loathed, viewed by many as so thin-skinned and so polarizing. Just his hair – that wondrous gossamer confection – screams out for forensic examination by a master painter.
The great photo realist artist Chuck Close, who has painted both Clintons and works on a massive scale, is the obvious candidate but would he accept? We would be able to see every follicle, every blemish, every fold.
There are already a couple of known Trump oil portraits. Chas Fagan, a North Carolina artist, has painted every American President – dead and alive – for a touring exhibition sponsored by the American cable channel C-SPAN.
Since the election, Fagan has quickly added Trump to the show using photographs as reference. According to a statement, he opted for “a softer look into his face than we often get from public media photography.” Like his immediate predecessors, Trump is framed within a golden oval.
There is also an oil portrait from the late 1989 hanging prominently in Trump’s exclusive Mar-A-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, which looks as if it’s been dashed off for a Christmas card.
Trump stands tall, tanned, handsome and preppy in a cricket sweater, “his skin glowing like the top floors of Trump Tower at sunset,” as Mark Bowden described it in a 1997 profile for Playboy magazine.
The portrait, entitled “The Visionary,” was painted by a Palm Beach artist, Ralph Wolfe Cowan. Cowan has a reputation for flattering his sitters, who have included Elvis, Princess Grace of Monaco and Imelda Marcos.
Then in his early 40s, Trump was very pleased. Cowan, now in his mid-80s, is still accepting commissions. Would he be prepared to have another go?
Now let’s be blunt: The Trump presidency will be extraordinary. None of us know quite what he’s going to say, do or tweet next. Does he?
There has never been a thrice-married billionaire businessman/brand resident in the White House.
He will be living in a building that does not have his name in large gold capital letters emblazoned on the outside. Even if he demanded his logo on the south portico, surely they wouldn’t allow, it would they? The White House is the executive residence, but thanks to Jackie Kennedy, it is also a de facto museum.
Illustrations by Daniel van der Noon