Visitors to the new Warren G. Harding Presidential Library & Museum will glimpse the personalities of 29th President and First Lady through two new pieces of art on display in the lobby of the building.
The Ohio History Connection commissioned Marion native Danny Day, a professional artist living in San Diego, California, to paint color oil portraits of Warren and Florence Harding for the newly build presidential library. Against the subdued backgrounds which mirrored government portraits in the 1920s, Day brought the Hardings to the forefront with his unique talent for realism. In short, Day’s paintings seem more like photographs than paintings.
Day’s paintings present a more casual, “warm” version of Harding than seen in the traditional formal, somewhat stern countenances of the president portrayed by 1920s artists. “The President had a warm personality which drew people to him,” said Harding Sites Manager Sherry Hall. “We wanted that side of Harding’s personality to shine through.”
“I try to paint as realistically as possible,” Day explained during a recent visit to Marion to spend time with his mother, Mary Day. “Specifically with these two paintings, because of the existing photographic reference – it’s all black and white, a lot of (the photos) are very blurry, and I had to put (the Hardings) in different clothes than they were in (in available photographs). So I was taking different pieces from all of these different black and white photos. It’s always very important to me when I do a portrait to really make it look like the person, and that’s easier to say than to do.”
Day studied a trove of black and white photographs of Warren and Florence Harding as he began sketching the couple. In addition, he watched newsreel footage of the couple taken during Harding’s 1920 front porch campaign and in the White House. Even though the newsreels also were black and white, they offered opportunities to observe the Hardings’ natural movements and facial expressions in more unguarded situations. Hall also relayed to Day physical descriptions of the Hardings which were written in newspaper articles and insights about their personalities.
The portraits abound with details. The wrinkles in Harding’s suit are visible, for example, as well as the veins in the Hardings’ hands. “(Those details) are what I pride myself on,” Day said. “I always have to tone it down a little bit because my tendency is to show every single wrinkle. Wrinkles in an older man are OK, but you don’t want to do that in a little bit older woman. But you also don’t want to smooth her out so much that it doesn’t look like her anymore. So there’s a balance between the two, and if I hit that balance, then I feel like I’ve done my job.”
Symbolism in the portraits capture important elements of the Hardings’ lives, and Hall and Day worked together to select the historical objects which would tell the story. The importance of The Marion Daily Star newspaper in Harding’s life is represented by a folded copy placed on a small, but important, table in the portrait. The table held a Bible for Harding’s Oath of Office during the 1921 Inauguration.
A nod to the “ordinary” Harding, who prided himself on being the product of small-town Ohio, is illustrated by a straw hat “skimmer” and walking stick in his hand. And Day didn’t forget Harding’s beloved Airedale, Laddie Boy, who alertly sits at the President’s feet just as he did on a daily basis at the White House. All of the historical objects pictured are at the new presidential library in Marion or in the nearby Harding Home, and Day studied photos of them to exactly match colors and patterns.
Music, flowers and her devotion to disabled World War I veterans are hallmarks of Florence Harding’s life. In her portrait, Mrs. Harding stands by a reproducing piano (a much advanced player piano), which stood in the West Sitting Room of the White House during the Hardings’ residency. The piano now is in the presidential library’s exhibit gallery. A beautiful bouquet of her favorite pink flowers rests in a colorful cloisonne vase to pay tribute to her love of flowers and nature. A small tin box rests on the piano. The box was a gift from a disabled World War I soldier who Florence met at Walter Reed Hospital. She wears her favorite elephant necklace and a velvet choker, which was a gift from the President.
“I’m very honored to have been able to do the portraits, because of my connection with Marion and my family’s connection to the Harding Home,” Day said.
The Harding Presidential Library and Harding Home do not have a date for opening. The Ohio History Connection and Harding Sites staff will continue to monitor the Covid situation in Ohio to ensure an opening coincides with the safest possible health regulations for staff and visitors.