While national parks weren't mentioned by President Barack Obama in his inaugural speech today, it could be said that they actually weren't too far out of mind during the first day of 44's tenure.
After President Obama took the oath of office and delivered his Inaugural address, he was escorted to Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol for the Inaugural Luncheon. The current tradition of hosting a luncheon as Congress’s formal welcome to the new President and Vice President was established in 1953, and has been held in National Statuary Hall since 1981.
You might say it was a subliminal reference to the parks, but a painting that was prominently displayed during the Inaugural Luncheon was a dramatic rendering of the Yosemite Valley by 19th-century landscape painter Thomas Hill.
It was President Reagan who in 1985 launched the tradition of selecting a painting to serve as a backdrop to the head table. They say the chosen painting is intended to reflect the "official theme of each year's inaugural ceremony." The Yosemite painting was chosen in an effort to convey "the majestic landscape of the American West and the dawn of a new era."
Now, if you've been paying attention to who out of history has influenced President Obama, you no doubt know that he holds President Abraham Lincoln in high regard. While President Lincoln is often associated with a number of historical events -- the Emancipation Proclamation, Civil War, Gettysburg Address, and others -- one that has been largely overshadowed is Lincoln's signing of a bill in 1864 to protect Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove.
The choice of Yosemite Valley and Lincoln's role in its initial protection from development was a bit of a surprise for some people—but does it suggest anything more than a pleasant landscape, or the role of California Senator Diane Feinstein in the event? The painting was borrowed for the luncheon from the New York Historical Society, whose website notes,
Senator Dianne Feinstein requested the loan of the painting in her capacity as Chair of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. In a letter to Linda Ferber, Museum Director of the New-York Historical Society, Senator Feinstein wrote: "The theme for our 2009 Inaugural will be 'A New Birth of Freedom.' We will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, and the ideals of reuniting a nation and Westward expansion that were exemplified during Lincoln's presidency. View of the Yosemite Valley, from your collection, represents this theme through the monumental vista of the valley, celebrating a new land that was open for exploration."
In 2005, the Inaugural Luncheon for George W. Bush featured a painting of Wind River, Wyoming, by Albert Bierstadt. It was reportedly a testimonial to President Theodore Roosevelt's 1905 Presidential Inauguration and the expedition of Lewis and Clark from 1803 to 1806. Earlier selections have included "West Front, Steps of the Capitol" (2001); a pair of paintings of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (1997); Thomas Jefferson (1993); George Washington (1989); and, "Autumn - On the Hudson River" (1985).
You can get a glimpse of those paintings at this site.
Contributing writer Jim Burnett helped compile this post.