Author Interview: Adam Van Doren

Intern Allie asks the hard-hitting questions we all want to know.

Adam Van Doren is the author of The House Tells the Story (2015), and An Artist in Venice (2013).  Van Doren’s artwork is included in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; The Wadsworth Atheneum; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Princeton University Art Museum; and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. His work has been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., among other institutions. Van Doren teaches at Yale University, where he is also an Associate Fellow, and is a graduate of Columbia University. He has written and directed two documentaries about the arts which were broadcast on PBS and cable television: James Thurber: The Life and Hard Times, narrated by George Plimpton, which was awarded a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities; and Top Hat and Tales: Harold Ross and the Making of The New Yorker, narrated by Stanley Tucci.

In your introduction you explain that the criteria for the houses featured was (1) that the house for the most part be architecturally interesting, (2) that the choice be apolitical, (3) that you should be granted permission to visit it, and, knowing that presidents have lived in more than one house in their lifetimes, (4) that you consider residences that have an especially intriguing connection to the presidents themselves. With so many to choose from, I imagine it was a difficult decision. Which residences almost made the final cut, but didn’t?

Others that were high on the list were Reagan’s ranch in California, Andrew Jackson’s The Hermitage in Nashville [Tennessee], Lincoln’s house in Springfield [Illinois], LBJ’s ranch in Texas, and James Madison house in Virginia. (Maybe a sequel is in order!)

You mention the great tradition of illustrated letters in your introduction as well, along with the 2007 Smithsonian exhibition More than Words that featured many of these correspondences. Browsing through some of them online, I was particularly intrigued by Joseph Lindon Smith’s letters to his parents (his handwriting is fascinating), Allen Tupper True’s letters to his daughter, and Rockwell Kent’s letters to Frances Kent (especially the “My darling—I do!”). Were there any that struck you in particular or that served as inspiration for your own illustrated letters to David McCullough?

Yes, a wonderful collection of letters by Edward Ardizzone was a great source of inspiration. I can’t imagine a better artist/writer for this ”genre.”

Early on, you explain that this was an ideal project due to your interests and background in both art and architecture. Which house was the most enjoyable to paint, and which did you find the most architecturally interesting? Are these things directly correlated with one another in your personal experience?

I would say Teddy Roosevelt’s house at Sagamore Hill because I happen to be a great admirer of the great shingle style houses of the Gilded Age, which are masterpieces of a complex, asymmetrical design.

Many of these houses have beautiful libraries. Did any of the books on the shelves surprise you? You listed several titles for Truman, but I was curious if there were others.

I was interested in Jimmy Carter’s personal library (in the house he nows lives in) which has many poetry collections, including Dylan Thomas, one of his favorites.

You mention presidential artifacts such as FDR’s stamp collection, Jefferson’s souvenirs from Lewis and Clark, and Teddy Roosevelt’s assortment of rifles and hunting trophies. Which collection or artifact was most interesting to you, and which did you find to be most revealing about its owner?

I would say Truman’s home. Many of his personal items were not valuable per se, but they were meaningful to him and his family, and they reveal a great deal about who Truman was as a person.

You mention a quote from Jefferson that clearly states his opinion on architecture: “Palladio is the Bible.” Do you agree with him?

Yes, it is required reading for any understanding of great architecture. It is a classic treatise that teaches timeless lessons about proportion, planning, decoration, etc. that can apply to both traditional and modern architecture.

Aside from the White House’s intense security and the oppressive heat in the summer at Mount Vernon, were any of the houses challenging to paint in other ways, logistically or otherwise?

Yes, getting access to the Kennedy compound in MA, and the homes of the Bushes and Jimmy Carter required a fair amount of planning with the presidents themselves and the secret service, since these homes are private and not open to the public.

Describing Jefferson’s genius in his design of Monticello, you write that he had somehow managed to “plan for spontaneity!” Do you try to do something similar when you paint by creating the optimal conditions to allow room for spontaneity in your work?

Yes, I always come prepared. I paint on site, so I have to be ready for all sorts of change in weather and sunlight. I also work on both white papers and tinted papers, and I often make a decision on the spot which ones I want to paint on.

The insides of the houses are just as fascinating as their exteriors. I was surprised to learn that George Washington chose a bold green for his dining room in keeping with the latest fashions of his time, and I was less surprised to learn that Teddy Roosevelt had an original man-cave. Have any rooms in particular left lasting impressions on you more than others?

I was taken with JFK’s bedroom at his parents’ home in Hyannis. It has been left exactly as it was when he last visited it, including the objects in the room and the prints on the wall. It was very moving to see.

Do you find you paint architecture differently after learning more about a place and its inhabitants? Where do you locate the subjectivity in your paintings?

Once I learn more about a president, I tend to emphasize certain aspects over others. For instance in the case of George H. W. Bush, I wanted to emphasize the isolated, exclusive quality to the family compound, so I choose the vantage point of the rocky outcrop which the house sits on, by the ocean’s edge, so you get a sense that the structure is all alone.