Longtime recipients of the annual Prey family Christmas card – fellow parishioners of the First Presbyterian Church in Oyster Bay, Long Island; summer residents in Tenant’s Harbor, Maine; the United States Ambassador to the Czech Republic – may have noticed something familiar about this year’s edition. The snowy woods, the red barn, the giant wreath: it’s pretty, of course, but didn’t the Prey’s send an image just like it a few years back? Well, yes, that’s Barbara’s “Season’s Greetings” painting from 1998. Barbara should be forgive, though, now that the news has finally come out- after eight months of enforced secrecy, extending to even her mother in law- that she had been hard at work this year on a more important project: the White House Christmas Card, which last week began arriving at the homes of a record million and a half Republican Party donors and foreign dignitaries, bearing a Crawford, Texas, postmark.
Barbara Ernst Prey keeps a low profile in the art world, and yet she may be, at this moment, the most widely viewed painter in the world. Her work hangs at American Embassies in Prague, Oslo, and Monrovia. (Minsk is on the waiting list.) NASA has a Prey, and another is coming. Libby Pataki recently requested Barbara’s post 9/11 work “Gallantly Streaming,” of an American flag against a cloudless sky.
“I don’t really do interiors –I do landscapes,” Prey, who is forty-six, and a mother of two, said the other day, shortly before flying to the capital for the Christmas card’s official unveiling with the First Lady. “That’s why this was such a challenge.” She was giving a tour of her studio, on the third floor of the family’s historic Queen Anne house in downtown Oyster Bay, and pointing out mockups of the card. It depicts the fireplace in the Diplomatic Reception Room, with festive decorations and a roaring blaze. (Last year’s card, by the Chinese artist Zhen Huan Lu, featured a Steinway in the White House’s Grand Foyer, and was criticized for lacking holiday spirit.) One of her other card submissions (there were five), featuring the drapes in the Blue Room, was used for the invitations to the various White House Christmas parties. Another, of a mirror in the State Dining Room, adorns the invitations to the Congressional Ball.
Prey works almost exclusively in watercolors (primary influences: Homer, Hopper). She says she likes to use strong colors, if possible, but speaks of her art mostly in terms of who collects it. The dominant wall motif in her studio is not paintings but testimonials. One framed note reads, “Thank you very much for the lovely poster and note cards. What a nice surprise! I’m thrilled to have the Kennebunkport painting to enjoy in the White House. I appreciate your kindness.” It is signed by Laura Bush. (There are also letters from Barbara Bush.)
“The first person who bought one of my works was New York Governor Hugh Carey, back when I was seventeen,” Prey said. Her mother, a professional artist and art teacher, was an acquaintance of Carey’s. “I think it’s still over his mantelpiece in Shelter Island.”
“There are a couple of Nobel laureates who have my paintings,” she went on. A letter from James Watson, the DNA pioneer, was on the wall by the staircase; he lives down the road. “And some senators,” she continued, pointing out the letterhead of Judd Gregg (R., New Hampshire). She had just spent the weekend with Gregg and his wife in Washington, as a matter of fact.
“I look at my career as a building process,” she said. “You’re slowly building up your clientele, building up your collectors, building your resume.” She admitted that she had been pretty fortunate, too. In her twenties, she served briefly as a personal assistant to a Bavarian prince. “That was an exposure to prominent Europeans,” she said. The prince now collects. In 1986, she went to Asia on a Henry Luce Foundation scholarship. “I did a painting of the Luce family house,” she said. “And they used it as their Christmas card last year. And he’s probably the patron of American art.”
At one point, she was interrupted by a phone call from a White House press secretary. “It’s pretty cool,” she said after hanging up. “I’ve been so busy baking my pies for Thanksgiving that I haven’t been able to appreciate it until now.”