While it is known mainly as a repository of presidential papers and artifacts, the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum also has a great collection of art.
When visitors first arrive at the main entrance, they see the large mural that Thomas Hart Benton created commemorating America’s western expansion. Much has been written about the Benton mural.
Less well-known are the numerous sculptures, busts and paintings that are in the museum’s collections.
One of the most dramatic and iconic sculptures in that collection is “The Flag Raising on Iwo Jima,” which is based on Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph of U.S. Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the American flag on Mt. Suribachi in February 1945. On June 4, 1945, sculptor Felix de Weldon presented the sculpture to President Truman in a ceremony that included Rosenthal. Eventually, de Weldon reproduced the sculpture on a massive scale, and it became the Marine Corps Memorial near Arlington National Cemetery.
In addition to this sculpture, the Library also has numerous busts of important figures such as Secretary of State Dean Acheson, General George Marshall, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson (acquired in 2015), and diplomat George Kennan (acquired in 2018).
The collection also includes “At the Beach of Scheveningen,” by Hendrik Willem Mesdag, a 19th century Dutch master. This large oil on canvas work was presented to Truman in the Oval Office on July 26, 1946. It was a gift from the people of Holland in thanks for U.S. support during World War II. The painting was hung in Truman’s private study at the White House, and was displayed above a White House mantel at the Truman Library from 1957-2001.
The Truman Library has four portraits of Truman (including one in his Masonic regalia), one of Bess Truman and one of Treasury Secretary John Snyder, all the work of Greta Kempton, who was dubbed “America’s Court painter.” When Truman brought some papers into his first sitting with her, the Austrian-born Kempton admonished him not to read them. “This is the time when I do all the work and you relax!” In addition to many of her paintings, the Truman Library also houses Kempton’s papers.
The Library also has an original painting by Norman Rockwell entitled, “Family Squabble.” This oil painting shows a husband and wife arguing over the breakfast table about Truman and Thomas Dewey, the Democratic and Republican Party nominees for president in 1948. Rockwell created the painting for a Saturday Evening Post magazine cover in October 1948, just days before the election. The National Council to Combat Blindness (to whom Rockwell had given the painting through the Artists Guild) presented the painting to Truman on Sept. 19, 1950, as thanks for his signing a bill creating the National Institute for Neurological Diseases and Blindness.
Other notable paintings in the Library’s holdings include Robert Henri’s “The Fisherman’s Boy,” which Sen. William Benton of Connecticut gave to Truman. In a letter to Sen. Benton, President Truman told Benton “how pleased I am with `the boy.’” No fan of modern art, Truman wrote it was “difficult now-adays to find a picture by a modern painter that is even fit to look at. I think Henri probably is the best of all of them.” This painting probably depicts a child from the McNamara family from the Village of Dooagh, in Ireland.
In 1962, artist Elaine de Kooning was commissioned to paint a portrait of President John F. Kennedy for the Truman Library. That project came about as a result of a visit to the Library by Thomas Hart Benton and Robert Graham, an art collector and friend of the Kennedy family. De Kooning finished the painting after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and presented it to the Truman Library in 1965. In his remarks at the presentation, Truman thanked de Kooning for the portrait but didn’t comment on his view of the clearly “modern” painting, which is oil on canvas. The previous year, in 1964, Truman told Truman Library director Philip Brooks that people should argue about the painting, a prospect that Truman seemed to “enjoy.”
– Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.