DALLAS — On the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy realized that their Fort Worth hotel suite featured an extraordinary array of artwork — from a painting by Vincent van Gogh to a bronze by Pablo Picasso.
A group of prominent Fort Worth citizens had scrambled to put together the collection in the days leading up to the president's fateful Texas visit, transforming an otherwise plain suite into something special.
Next year, almost all of those works the couple admired in their last private moments before President Kennedy was assassinated will be on display at the Dallas Museum of Art in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of his death.
"It's not a story about death. It's not a story about hate. It's a story about art and love, which I think is a very good tribute to the Kennedys. It's all about their love of art," said Olivier Meslay, associate director of curatorial affairs at the museum and the exhibit's curator.
Before the Kennedys' visit, Fort Worth newspapers had revealed details about the preparations, including the description of the unremarkable Suite 850 at the Hotel Texas, said Scott Grant Barker, a Texas art historian who has researched the events. He said that a local art critic decided something needed to be done to make the suite shine.
A group of prominent citizens turned to museums and private collections to assemble 12 paintings and four sculptures, including Thomas Eakins' oil painting "Swimming," Pablo Picasso's bronze "Angry Owl" and Vincent van Gogh's oil painting "Road with Peasant Shouldering a Spade."
"What they did was really amazing. They put together really a series of masterpieces," Meslay said.
Barker said works of art were "basically gathered up by courier and by station wagon and every other means."
The Kennedys left Washington on Nov. 21 for a two-day, five-city tour of Texas. They went to San Antonio and Houston before ending the day in Fort Worth. Barker said the Kennedys arrived so late, they didn't notice the significant artwork until the morning.
The Kennedys then called one of the organizers, Ruth Carter Stevenson, daughter of legendary Texas newspaper publisher and philanthropist Amon G. Carter, whose will established the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Barker said Jacqueline Kennedy told Stevenson that she didn't want to leave the exhibit.
Meslay said the works were not only a snapshot of art tastes in 1963, but also a display of the cultural riches that were in Fort Worth at the time. For instance, he said, Akins' "Swimmers" from 1885, held currently by the Amon Carter, is "one of the most important American paintings of the 19th century."
He said there was also a "good mix" — ranging from the abstract expressionist oil on paper "Study for Accent Grave" by Franz Kline to Charles M. Russell's western-inspired "Lost in a Snowstorm - We are Friends" to Maurice Prendergast's post-impressionist oil painting "Summer Day in the Park."
The exhibit, "Hotel Texas: An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy" will open at the Dallas Museum of Art on May 26, 2013, and run through Sept. 15, 2013. The exhibit then will move to the Amon Carter from Oct. 12, 2013, through Jan. 12, 2014.
At least 14 of the 16 works will be on display, as well as photographs, videos and archival materials including images of the suite before the couple's arrival.
"It was their ultimate private art show. When you view these, you'll be standing in the shoes of John and Jackie Kennedy. You'll be seeing what they saw," Barker said.
Andrew Walker, director of the Amon Carter, said the exhibit will be an opportunity to recover an extraordinary moment that was overshadowed by the assassination.
He said with so much of the anniversary's focus on the president's death, this exhibit will offer a "kind of respite moment."
"It's taking as its point of mediation on that moment of great optimism. I hope people feel that," he said.
Dallas Museum of Art, http://www.dm-art.org
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, http://www.cartermuseum.org