Harry Truman, Modern Artist

I’m currently researching an article for White House History Quarterly about the day Harry Truman went sightseeing with Pablo Picasso on the French Riviera in 1958. It was an improbable rendezvous. After all, Harry hated modern art, which he called “ham and eggs art” because he thought most of it looked like it belonged on a breakfast plate instead of a museum wall. He also hated communists—and Picasso was one of the most famous communists in the world at the time.

When Harry met Pablo, Vallauris, France, June 11, 1958 (Truman Library)

The back story behind the meeting is fascinating. I’ll save that for the article, but my research got me to wondering if Harry had any artistic ability. We know he was a pretty good piano player. But could he draw?

I asked the exceptional archivists at the Truman Library if they knew of any drawings by Harry. They found this page of doodles that was published and analyzed (along with doodles by other celebrities) in the New York Times in 1947:

The doodle of the face in the upper left corner caught my eye; it struck me as almost… Picassoesque.

With considerable free time on my hands due to the pandemic, I decided to turn Harry’s doodle into modern art—specifically, a mobile. First I enlarged the picture, filled it in with a black Sharpie, and carefully plotted the dimensions.

Using the blown-up picture as a guide, I sketched out the doodle on a large piece of 3-mm-thick cardboard that I bought at an art supply store for two bucks. The cardboard was too thick for scissors, so I used a box cutter to cut out the pieces. Somehow I managed to do this without seriously injuring myself or damaging the dining room table.

Then I used an acrylic to paint all the pieces black — except the eyes, which I painted yellow to add a little color.

Next I drilled tiny holes in each of the pieces and hung them from a wooden broom handle with thin wire … it took a while to figure out exactly where to put the holes so the whole thing would hang just right.

I’ve titled this masterpiece Harry Doodle and of course prepared a museum label for it. (Fun fact: museum labels are also known as tombstones.)

Not sure where I’ll end up hanging it (assuming MoMA doesn’t want it). Negotiations with the spouse are ongoing.

Nonetheless, more than 48 years after he died, Harry Truman can finally be called something he never wanted to be called: a modern artist. I’m pretty sure he would think it’s funny. Not sure what Picasso would think, though.

© 2021 by Matthew Algeo

Matthew Algeo is an author and journalist. His latest book is All This Marvelous Potential: Robert Kennedy’s 1968 Tour of Appalachia (Chicago Review Press). His website is malgeo.net.

Husband, father, writer. I have a degree in folklore! Unlicensed historian. Known to dabble in public radio. https://www.buymeacoffee.com/malgeo

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