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Monday, November 20, 2017

Something of Splendor: Decorative Arts from the White House

As both the official residence and the working office of the president of the United States, the White House and its furnishings have invited great interest and comment since President John Adams became the first resident in November 1800. This fall and winter, a selection of decorative arts treasures from the White House collection are on view in the exhibition Something of Splendor: Decorative Arts from the White House, hosted by the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Organized in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the White House Historical Association, the exhibition includes many objects never before seen outside of the White House. The furniture, ceramics, glass, metals, and textiles included in the show, all used by first families and their guests, document the changing fashions of the White House while also providing a glimpse into both the public and private lives of its famous occupants.

Something of Splendor: Decorative Arts from the White House by
by Melissa C. Naulin

Differences in opinion regarding, in George Washington’s words, “the style proper for the Chief Magistrate to live in”1 have existed from the very beginning of the new American government’s creation, with both the general public and Congress frequently finding the White House interiors to be excessively splendid. But the presidents and their families have always faced the challenge of furnishing their temporary home in a manner that secures the respect of foreign government officials while simultaneously being seen as appropriate for a democratically elected leader. As inventor and artist Samuel F.B. Morse commented in 1819, “Something of splendor is certainly proper about the Chief Magistrate for the credit of the nation.”2 The exhibition showcases objects that presidents and first ladies have chosen for the White House to fulfill both its public and private functions. Although the White House interiors have seen much less change in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries than they did in the nineteenth, they continue to evolve as each new first family leaves their imprint on the building that is not just a living museum, but their personal home.

Soup tureen, Jacques-Henri Fauconnier (1779–1839), Paris, ca. 1809–17. Silver. U.S. Government purchase, 1817.
Soup tureen, Jacques-Henri Fauconnier (1779–1839), Paris, ca. 1809–17. Silver.
U.S. Government purchase, 1817.

After the British burned the White House during the War of 1812, destroying almost all of its furnishings, President James Monroe was tasked with restoring the house and its interiors. For the primary entertaining spaces of the public dining room and the central oval room (now the Blue Room), Monroe ordered a large number of elegant furnishings from France in 1817. This superb Neoclassical soup tureen, one of a pair, was made in Paris by Jacques-Henri Fauconnier, who also provided silver to French emperor Napoleon. The White House tureens were in keeping with the silver that would have been used on the tables of the finest European residences, but were customized for the young nation with the addition of the finely modeled American eagle finial and engraved eagle emblem found on each of the tureen’s components. Their use on the White House dining table represents President Monroe’s confidence that the United States could compete as a world power.


Armchair, William King Jr. (1771–1854), Georgetown, D.C., 1818. Mahogany. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John Ford Sollers Sr., 1986.
Armchair, William King Jr. (1771–1854), Georgetown, D.C., 1818. Mahogany.
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John Ford Sollers Sr., 1986.

When the White House was burned in August 1814, the East Room, the largest room in the house, was still unfinished. President Monroe intended to complete it as part of the postfire refurbishing, and ordered a suite of twenty-four armchairs and four sofas for the room from Georgetown cabinetmaker William King Jr. Monroe had already exhausted a large portion of the congressional appropriation made for refurbishing the White House with his purchases from France; so although he economized by buying locally for the East Room, he still sought French-inspired furniture. The gilded suite of furniture provided in 1817 by leading Paris cabinetmaker Pierre-Antoine Bellangé for the Oval Room (now the Blue Room) may have served as King’s model for the East Room suite. Because Monroe ran out of funds, the King suite was only upholstered in 1829 when President Andrew Jackson completed the East Room for the first time. King’s sturdy, well-constructed chairs remained in the East Room for the next forty-four years. Probably sold at public auction in 1873, this chair is one of three from the King suite returned to the White House.


Pier table, Anthony Gabriel Quervelle (1789–1856), Philadelphia, ca. 1829. Mahogany, marble, mirror glass. U.S. Government purchase, 1829.
Pier table, Anthony Gabriel Quervelle (1789–1856), Philadelphia, ca. 1829. Mahogany, marble, mirror glass.
U.S. Government purchase, 1829.

By the election of 1828, the unfinished state of the East Room had come to be seen as a national embarrassment for which incumbent president John Quincy Adams was criticized. Upon winning the election, Andrew Jackson directed that the majority of furnishing funds available to him be spent on completing the East Room. To supplement the existing King suite of seating furniture ordered by President Monroe, Jackson purchased seven tables from French émigré cabinetmaker Anthony Quervelle in Philadelphia—four large tables, scaled to fit the great piers between the windows at the north and south ends of the room, and three round center tables that were placed under the three new chandeliers. This boldly carved table is the only one of the four pier tables to survive, and still bears Quervelle’s paper label. After being removed from the East Room during the 1860s, two of the pier tables, including this one, were repurposed as side tables in the Family Dining Room for the remainder of the century.


Centerpiece decorated by Haughwout & Dailey, New York, on French or English blank, 1853. Porcelain and Parian ware. U.S. Government purchase, 1853.
Centerpiece decorated by Haughwout & Dailey, New York, on French or English blank, 1853.
Porcelain and Parian ware. U.S. Government purchase, 1853.

This sculptural centerpiece was the most elaborate component of the state dinner and dessert service selected for the White House by President Franklin Pierce during his visit to the 1853 world’s fair, held in New York City. China supplier Haughwout & Dailey offered President Pierce two designs for a presidential service, and he chose this pattern in cobalt blue and gold. Of the original 269 pieces in the service, this is the only one to have survived uninterrupted at the White House and continues to be the highlight of the White House china collection.


Shelf clock, Simon Willard & Son, Roxbury, Mass., ca. 1825. Mahogany. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. A. H. Meyer, 1961.
Shelf clock, Simon Willard & Son, Roxbury, Mass., ca. 1825. Mahogany. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. A. H. Meyer, 1961.

In response to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s public appeal for American antiques to be donated to the White House, Mr. and Mrs. A.H. Meyer of Birmingham, Michigan, purchased a spectacular “lighthouse clock” from dealer Israel Sack for the White House collection. Simon Willard, a celebrated clockmaker from Roxbury, Massachusetts, invented both the cylindrical form of this clock and its alarm mechanism. The White House lighthouse clock is considered to be a particularly fine example of the form due to the sulfide likeness of the Marquis de Lafayette included in the base. Revolutionary War hero Lafayette was invited by President James Monroe to take a “triumphal tour” of the United States in 1824 and 1825 as the nation celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. It is believed that Willard produced this clock shortly after Lafayette’s visit to the United States. The clock has been on display in the White House Library almost continuously since its donation in 1961.


Centerpiece, Gorham Mfg. Co., Providence, R.I., 1871. Silver. Possibly a gift from Gorham Mfg. Co., ca. 1876
Centerpiece, Gorham Mfg. Co., Providence, R.I., 1871. Silver. Possibly a gift from Gorham Mfg. Co., ca. 1876

In 1876, Philadelphia hosted the Centennial Exhibition to celebrate the hundreth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Manufacturers from around the world displayed their newest designs and most elaborate products. Prominent American silver maker Gorham Mfg. Co. exhibited this sculptural centerpiece, inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Song of Hiawatha.” First Lady Julia Grant was a frequent visitor to the exposition and admired this piece, writing “I took much pleasure in selecting a piece of silver for the Executive Mansion and was happy in securing a piece entirely American in history, ideal, skill, and material.” 4 The “Hiawatha Boat” was a favored table decoration in the White House for decades; often decorated with fresh flowers, it was used at many state dinners.


Dinner platter, Haviland & Co., Limoges, France, designed by Theodore R. Davis (1840–1894), 1880. Porcelain. U.S. Government purchase, 1880.
Dinner platter, Haviland & Co., Limoges, France, designed by Theodore R. Davis (1840–1894), 1880.
Porcelain. U.S. Government purchase, 1880.

This beautifully painted dinner platter depicting a wild turkey is one of the most dramatic pieces of the elaborate state service produced for President and Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880 by French manufacturer Haviland & Co. Disappointed that no American porcelain manufacturer was capable of producing a suitable set of state china for the White House at the time, First Lady Lucy Hayes asked American artist Theodore Davis to create original designs for a dinner service that would feature plants and animals native to the United States. In addition to the 130 unique pictorial designs created by Davis for this service, he also designed new ceramic forms including this platter with rolled corners. The wild turkey, described in the explanatory pamphlet that Haviland produced to accompany the service as “the largest, and in plumage the most gorgeous of American game birds,” was selected to decorate the dinner platters, the largest form in the service. Only two of these turkey platters were produced, both of which survive in the White House collection.


Andirons, France, ca. 1902. Brass. U.S. Government purchase, 1902.
Andirons, France, ca. 1902. Brass. U.S. Government purchase, 1902.

Prominent New York architects McKim, Mead & White supervised a large-scale renovation
of the White House for President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902. One of the designers’ major goals was to classicize the interiors, eliminating the modern décor and harmonizing the
furnishings with the late eighteenth-century architecture of the house. L. Marcotte & Co. was hired to execute their vision in the Blue Room. Knowing that President James Monroe had furnished this primary parlor in a French Empire style when the White House was rebuilt in 1817, Marcotte sought French models for this space. For the Blue Room fireplace, Marcotte selected French sphinx-form andirons that recalled the Egyptian Revival furnishings that had proved so popular in the early nineteenth century following Napoleon’s military campaign to Egypt.


Coverlet, Grace Goodhue Coolidge (1879–1957), Washington, D.C., 1925–1927. Crocheted shoe thread. Gift of Grace Coolidge, 1927.
Coverlet, Grace Goodhue Coolidge (1879–1957), Washington, D.C., 1925–1927.
Crocheted shoe thread. Gift of Grace Coolidge, 1927.

First Lady Grace Coolidge’s strong interest in American history and antiques led her to create this coverlet, decorated with patriotic motifs such as the Liberty Bell and elements of the Great Seal of the United States: eagle, shield, olive branches, and the motto “E Pluribus Unum.” Dubbed “The Coverlet for the Ages,” Mrs. Coolidge explained in the New York Herald Tribune in 1928 that she wanted her work to be a “token which shall go down through the ages to serve as a definite and visible link connecting the present and the past.” She placed the crocheted coverlet over a blue taffeta spread on the famous “Lincoln” bed and left it there to become part of the permanent collection when she moved out in 1929. Mrs. Coolidge’s most important legacy in respect to the White House collection was her efforts to furnish the house with American antiques. She pioneered the idea of establishing a committee composed of experts in the fields of antiques and design to advise on the furnishing of White House rooms and established a legal means for the White House to accept donated antiques. Through her efforts, the Green Room was the first room in the White House to be furnished primarily with American antiques.


Desk and bookcase, Thomas Seymour (1771–1848), probably with John Seymour (about 1738–1818), Boston, ca. 1798–1808. Mahogany. Gift of an anonymous donor and the White House Historical Association, 1974.
Desk and bookcase, Thomas Seymour (1771–1848), probably with John Seymour (about 1738–1818),
Boston, ca. 1798–1808. Mahogany. Gift of an anonymous donor and the White House Historical Association, 1974.

First Lady Patricia Nixon partnered with curator Clement Conger to acquire a large number of important American decorative arts for the White House in the early 1970s. One of their most important acquisitions was Vernon Stoneman’s collection of furniture made by John and Thomas Seymour, father and son cabinetmakers known for their exceptional craftsmanship. This desk and bookcase is considered one of their masterpieces, combining their signature tambour doors, meticulously chosen and matched veneers, and inventive inlays, demonstrated here in their use of urn-shaped ivory escutcheons surrounding the keyholes on the bottom drawers. Their use of églomisé (reverse-painted glass) panels at the bottom of the bookcase doors is a more unusual feature for the Seymours.


Something of Splendor: Decorative Arts from the White House is on view at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., October 1, 2011–May 6, 2012. The Renwick Gallery, Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street, N.W., near the White House. The exhibition was organized by the White House Office of the Curator, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the White House Historical Association. The accompanying exhibition catalogue, written by White House curator William Allman and assistant curator Melissa Naulin is available by contacting the White House Historical Association at www.whitehousehistory.org or 800.555.2451 (softcover, $14.95). For more information on the exhibition, please visit www.americanart.si.edu.

Melissa C. Naulin is assistant curator of the White House, where she focuses on the decorative arts.

1. George Washington to James Madison, March 30, 1789, in The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, Dorothy Twohig, ed. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1987– ). Vol 1: 464.

2. F.B. Morse, letter of December 19, 1819, in Samuel F.B. Morse: His Letter and Journals, vol. 1 (New York: Kennedy Galleries, 1973), 227.

3. Correspondence with glass scholar and dealer Ian Simmonds, 2009.

4. Julia Dent Grant, The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, John Y. Simon, ed. (New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1975), 189.
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