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New Exhibit Offers a Look at Eisenhower the Artist : Paintings: The works, at the Nixon Library, 'were pure relaxation' for the wartime leader and President.

November 17, 1990|MARCIDA DODSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YORBA LINDA — Mamie Eisenhower, chin in hand and hair upswept, smiles subtly from the canvas hanging on the wall. Not far away, oil paintings of snowy rural landscapes hang amid desert scenes, mountain vistas and several more portraits--a young boy, a military leader, Abraham Lincoln, even a self-portrait.

The artist is the same but the signature in the lower right corner of each piece varies a bit: "DE" on one. "DDE" on another. On most, it reads simply "Eisenhower."

Dwight David Eisenhower never fancied himself to be a serious artist, but an exhibit of his art, opening Monday at the Richard Nixon Library, shows the nation's 34th president had talent with a brush and a canvas.

"I think he was very good," said Amanda Fish, acting curator at the library and an artist herself. "I think people will be surprised."

The exhibit is made up of 22 paintings and one drawing--a sketch of an unidentified man made when Eisenhower was President--that show the gentle, expressive side of a man who rose to power commanding U.S. troops in World War II.

"He called them his 'daubs,' " Fish said. "He did this as pure enjoyment. You can see how peaceful and serene they are."

"He always resisted any efforts to read philosophy or hidden meanings into his paintings," said John H. Taylor, director of the Nixon Library. Eisenhower often did not even date the paintings, give them titles or identify the places he depicted, Taylor said. "He described them as a way to relieve pressure. They were pure relaxation, pure recreation for him."

Most of the paintings are of landscapes. The family farm in Gettysburg, Pa., was a favorite subject--one painting shows the house surrounded by green trees, with a putting green in foreground; another shows the home's old brown barn, swathed in snow. There are several paintings of lakes, with villages or mountains nearby. The desert scenes possibly are depictions of the sights near Palm Desert, where Eisenhower had a home, Fish said.

Another painting shows Eisenhower's grandson, David, at about age 7 with a golf club, squinting into the sun as he prepares to hit a golf ball. That painting, and several others, are on loan from David and Julie Nixon Eisenhower.

And there are five traditional portraits--wife Mamie, granddaughter Anne, a self-portrait, Viscount Montgomery of Alamein and Abraham Lincoln.

The Lincoln portrait was painted in 1953, Eisenhower's first year in the White House. Eisenhower probably based his painting on another portrait of the 16th President but may have drawn inspiration from his surroundings, Taylor said. "Most presidents say they do feel the presence of Abraham Lincoln all around them at the White House," he added.

The artwork is displayed next to a permanent exhibit at the library that chronicles Nixon's years as vice president under Eisenhower. Taylor denied a report that two new Watergate tape shows were delayed to make way for the Eisenhower art exhibit. "It was not an either/or proposition," he said.

One Watergate tape is now available for listening at the library, and Taylor plans eventually to offer two more tapes. But the current Watergate exhibit offers "a complete Watergate story. We feel utterly confident of that. And we decided we wanted to concentrate on other areas. . . . My aim is to put on diverse, exciting exhibits here." No date has been set for offering the other two Watergate tapes. From the response he has heard, Taylor said, public reaction is 30 to 1 in favor of his decision to proceed with the Eisenhower exhibit.

Taylor said Eisenhower's first venture into oil painting came at age 58. While he was president of Columbia University, Eisenhower watched as artist Thomas Stephens painted a portrait of Mamie. After Stephens left the room, Eisenhower reportedly picked up the pallet and brush and, using Stephen's artwork as a model, began painting his own portrait of Mamie on the back side of a crate that was handy, Taylor said.

Stephens, upon seeing Eisenhower's first attempt, pronounced it quite good and a few days later sent Eisenhower a full set of oils. Eisenhower left the set alone for a while, "but then he went at it," creating about 260 paintings in the last 20 years of his life, Taylor said.

Eisenhower kept a studio on the second floor of the White House, and despite his busy schedule, kept up his hobby as president.

"Even if he had only two minutes, he would duck in and put in a couple of brush strokes," Taylor said.

All of the paintings in the exhibit are privately owned by friends and family of the Eisenhowers--with the exception of the portrait of Lincoln, which belongs to a Gettysburg museum, and the one of Montgomery, which is on loan from the British Embassy in Washington.

Eisenhower "didn't ever expect the paintings to be exhibited," Fish said. "He gave them away as soon as he painted them."

On Monday, several friends of the Eisenhower family who also have close links with Nixon, will be on hand for the exhibit's opening. Former Secretary of Commerce Maurice Stans, Jane Gosden (wife of actor Freeman Gosden) and Dolores Hope (wife of comedian Bob Hope) will be at the 10 a.m. opening.

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