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  • Mary Evans Seeley

A Contemporary Christmas

Bill and Hillary Clinton introduced significant changes to presidential Christmas card art. While Mrs. Clinton had started getting ready for Christmas in the summer of 1993, none of the card designs met her approval. Finally, on Veterans Day, New York photographer, Neal Slavin came to the White House for a photo shoot of the Clinton's in the State Dining Room, under the pensive portrait of Abraham Lincoln. The floral shop decorated the mantel and brought in a Christmas tree laden with American craft ornaments. The Clinton's inaugural Christmas card portrayed a young couple in the White House posing for a photographic portrait.



Prior to a CNN televised tour of Christmas at the White House, a spokesperson from the White House called us, inquiring if in our Seeley Collection of Presidential Christmas Memorabilia there was any evidence of other First Families posing for their Christmas art. Actually, two to three decades earlier, it was an acceptable practice used by Presidents Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower.


My husband and I agreed to loan the White House a 1946 photograph, of President and Mrs. Truman boarding the President's private plane, the Sacred Cow. Coincidentally, we were going to Washington the next day, and I vividly remember passing our valuable Truman artifact through the bars of the wrought iron fence to a staff member from the curator’s office. Watching television later, we saw the two presidential images displayed side by side.

After personally being a part of their first Clinton Christmas card, Mrs. Clinton decided that she wanted to showcase the house for the next few years. The First Lady invited contemporary artist, Thomas McKnight, to paint the Red Room in 1994 for their Christmas card. (See https://www.blog.whitehouseholidays.com/blog/president-and-mrsclinton-christmas-card-the-red-room )


With the defeat of the Clinton’s health care bill, Mrs. Clinton diverted her energy from reform to renovation. The Blue Room had become worn since the Nixon’s restoration in 1972. In 1995, the First Lady invited McKnight back to paint her newly renovated Blue Room. The previous year, McKnight had painted a formal Blue Room to give the Clinton’s a choice for their first card. They chose the red Room. This second time, McKnight created a cozy scene in the Blue Room.


Comfortable in this fanciful setting was First Cat, Socks, reclining on a blanket beneath a Christmas tree decorated with miniature American flags. McKnight invited his wife’s dog , Shadow, for a visit to the White House and placed him under the tree facing Socks.


Since McKnight does not duplicate existing paintings on the walls, he removed the portrait of President James Madison and painted a new piece of art within the larger work. In this case, he painted a view of his neighbor’s backyard in Litchfleld, CT. “A lot of my work is fantasy and it comes right out of my head,” the artist told the Palm Beach Daily News. The backyard scene even included the historic Sheldon’s Tavern, where George Washington was said to have stayed. “I love New England and Litchfield is a beautiful old New England town. What would be more reflective of America,” he said.



In his unique artistic fashion, he shortened the distance between the fireplace and the window, so he could show at least two windows in the rendering. The Blue Room actually has three windows overlooking the Washington Monument, which he skewed to view through a window, highlighting his trademark--a dreamy full moon.


Mrs. Clinton was very particular that American Greetings matched the colors in the painting to the colors in the newly renovated Blue Room. Doing their very best, the card company reproduced 300,000 official Christmas cards for President and Mrs. Clinton. So pleased were they with McKnight’s second contemporary design, they invited him to work his magic on the Green Room in 1996. Three times was a charm for the Clinton’s Contemporary Christmas cards.


Do you watch the Home and Garden Christmas at the White House specials? Have you ever been to the White House at Christmas? Have you ever made the President’s prestigious Christmas card list?

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