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Chasing the White House Cezannes

Eighty-five years ago, eight paintings by the Postimpressionist master were bequeathed to the nation's presidents — works hidden, often in plain sight.

August 31, 2013|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • During Jacqueline Kennedy's televised White House tour in 1962, viewers could see Paul Cezanne's "The Forest" hanging above a table in the Green Room.
During Jacqueline Kennedy's televised White House tour in 1962,… (White House Historical…)

WASHINGTON — Just a week before astronaut John Glenn's maiden voyage orbiting the Earth in 1962, a record 46 million people sat down before their black-and-white sets to watch Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy conduct the first televised White House tour.

The mansion's $1.5-million renovation was her debut project as first lady, restoring "an emblem of the American republic," as Kennedy breathily described the stately residence.

Midway through the program, the camera scanned the elegant Green Room. Kennedy walked to a corner and stood beside a marquetry card table — a very fine antique, she explained, that dictated the room's Federalist decor.

Hanging above the table on a silk damask wall was a park-like landscape in faceted brush strokes of green and blue. Paul Cézanne's "The Forest" is a sterling example of the artist's mature Postimpressionist style, widely credited with launching an artistic revolution.

CBS newscaster Charles Collingwood asked Kennedy to point out a few objects of special interest.

"Well," she replied, "there's this sofa, which belonged to Daniel Webster."

Kennedy gracefully glided away, saying not a word about the Cézanne.

As the pair left the room on their way upstairs to the Lincoln Bedroom, they passed a second great Cézanne by the doorway. The vivid landscape of a house by a river was likewise ignored.

Perhaps the omissions represented the public relations savvy of a young but seasoned political wife. She knew the art's importance, having studied French history at the Sorbonne in Paris, but may have thought it impolitic to draw attention to Modern French paintings in an American Neoclassical house.

Or perhaps there was another reason. The first lady was among a handful of people who knew the dark secret of how the paintings came to Washington.

A bequest to the White House

Eighty-five years ago, Charles A. Loeser, an American living abroad, gave the White House eight Cézanne paintings, a bequest that would have been the envy of any museum in the world.

Loeser donated the six landscapes and two still lifes "to the President of the United States of America and his successors in office for the adornment of the White House" and required that the paintings be displayed together, as an ensemble.

Yet only two of the eight — the two that Kennedy ignored — have spent a significant amount of time inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. At least one has never hung there.

The White House's art collection is mostly American-themed art, including fine works by Gilbert Stuart, Jean-Antoine Houdon and John Singer Sargent. The presence of the French masterpieces is little known, even among experts.

Asked recently about them, Paul Schimmel, former museum curator and member of the presidentially appointed Committee for the Preservation of the White House, responded: "What Cézannes?"

The tale of the paintings is a tangled one, and some puzzle pieces are still missing.

But this much, at least, is known: John Walker III, chief curator of the National Gallery of Art, surreptitiously diverted the Cézannes from the White House to boost his fledgling museum's collections. To get them, he later admitted, he bamboozled Loeser's daughter and President Truman.

As Jacqueline Kennedy wrote the curator in her final days in the White House, Walker had even "violated poor Mr. Loeser's will."

Eye for talent

Loeser, heir to a Brooklyn department store fortune, was one of Cézanne's first collectors.

He graduated from Harvard in 1888 and moved permanently to Florence, Italy, where he assembled an impressive collection of European Renaissance and Baroque art. In the 1890s, when Cézanne was little-known, Loeser began to buy the artist's paintings. By the time he was done, he had 15.

Loeser died in 1928. In his will, he made three handsome bequests. Two were of Renaissance and Baroque art. Harvard received 262 drawings, forming the core of the Fogg Art Museum's outstanding collection. Sculptures, paintings, furniture and decorated earthenware went to the city of Florence, where they are now housed in the Palazzo Vecchio.

The White House was allowed to choose eight of his Cézannes. Loeser gave his daughter Matilda, then 15, a life interest in the paintings, which meant they would be sent to Washington upon her death — or earlier, if she wished.

Two years after Loeser died, John Walker, a recent art history graduate of Harvard, moved to Florence. His mission was to oversee the transfer of the drawings in Loeser's collection to their shared alma mater, and he met frequently with the collector's widow and the couple's daughter.

Walker saw the Cézannes many times at the Loeser villa. Because he had a copy of Loeser's will, he knew that it outlined a plan to give the paintings to the White House.

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