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Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State


Illuminating the climactic events and towering personalities that shaped the birth of the United States, a new exhibition of early American art makes its national premiere this spring at the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State , on view from April 11 through June 8, 2003, brings together over 130 objects from the State Department Collection including furniture, silver, paintings, porcelain and other decorative objects by some of America's finest artists and artisans from the early years of our nation as well as works by European and Chinese artisans produced specifically for the American market. 

Becoming a Nation traces the story of our emergent country and its developing culture and aesthetics through these superb objects-their forms, their materials and their ties to important historical figures and events. These icons of United States history also document the beginnings of the Department of State and the origins of American foreign policy.  More than imposing decorations, these works elucidate an important aspect of the early republic -- the fact that America shared in the elegance and grandeur of the age of Enlightenment -- and also document the birth and development of an American aesthetic and a native craft tradition.

"For the Pacific Northwest, the exhibition offers an opportunity to see premier examples of early American fine and decorative arts not found in public collections in our region and only rarely represented in private collections," notes Margaret Bullock." Becoming a Nation is also the first large-scale exhibition of American 18th century fine and decorative arts in the Portland Art Museum's history." In addition, through the story of our developing nation, the exhibition also shares direct ties with the celebration of the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to be celebrated throughout the Northwest from 2003 to 2006.


The Diplomatic Reception Rooms

One of the nation's least-known cultural treasures is the collection of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U. S. Department of State which includes some of the finest examples ever created of American furniture, fine art and decorative arts from the 18th and early 19th centuries. The collection was assembled starting in the 1950s as part of a larger plan to transform a suite of box-like rooms into an elegant and distinctively American backdrop for affairs of state.

The result, designed and assembled in only 30 years, is a series of graceful rooms for entertaining diplomats and foreign heads of state that are renowned world-wide for their beauty and evocative period settings.  The collection of American decorative and fine arts housed within the rooms is one of the premier assemblages of its kind in the world, representing the finest of America's achievements in the arts between about 1730 and 1830. This great national collection was formed and is used to affirm the civility and elegance of our early democratic republic and to demonstrate these aspects of America's heritage to the rest of the world.


The Colonial Period

The Colonial section of the exhibition explores the colonies' reliance on British trade goods and the gradual development of an American craft tradition that reflected English taste but rejected English products.  Works from this period are influenced by the principles of symmetry and order fundamental to Enlightenment thought.  Examples in the exhibition include a distinctive regional furniture form, the bombé or kettle-shape that is given magnificent expression in the signed and dated desk and bookcase of 1753 by Benjamin Frothingham, Jr. of Charlestown, Massachusetts, the first example of bombé furniture made in America, and in the dramatic serpentine-shaped Boston chest of drawers owned by Ebenezer Storer, Jr., a wealthy merchant.   Decorative objects include works by the great Boston silversmith, Jacob Hurd, purveyor of fine silver to Boston's elite.  Portraits of George Washington and Stephen Van Rensselaer, Lieutenant Governor of New York by the well-known American painter Gilbert Stuart, capture the towering personalities and historic figures of the period leading up to the Revolutionary War. (left: Gilbert Stuart, ca. 1803-1805, George Washington, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 inches, Replica of the "Athenaeum" life portrait of Washington painted in 1796, Gift of Mrs. Robert G. Stone, 1981.0068, Photography by Will Brown)


The Revolutionary War Period

Objects from the period of the Revolutionary War commemorate the famous leaders and reflect the shifting politics of that period.  American silversmith and patriot, Paul Revere, is here represented by one of his stark political engravings of the Boston Massacre of 1770, a work once owned by the family of one of the massacre's victims.  Lush portraits by the American realist painter, John Singleton Copley, feature members of both the English and American upper class, reflecting Copley's own dual citizenship and training.  One of the important Revolutionary War commemoratives in the exhibition is a badge from the Society of the Cincinnati, an order worn by the officers who served under George Washington during the Revolutionary War and formerly the property of Timothy Pickering, a prominent Whig and Quartermaster of the Continental Army. (left: John Singleton Copley, Mrs. John Montresor, ca. 1778, oil on canvas, in the original gilt frame, 30 x 25 inches, Companion portrait to one painted by Copley of her husband, the chief British engineer in America, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard I. Robinson, 1981.0050, Photography by Will Brown)


A New Nation

The largest section of the exhibition showcases the explosion of interest in both European and American fine and decorative arts in the decades after the Revolutionary War. America's new status as an independent nation allowed it to participate in an international network of trade and America's own native artisans flourished by both borrowing elements from and responding to European aesthetics. Works from this period are often hybrids that include patriotic emblems, such as the eagle, yet emulate fashionable English styles. 

A variety of works by the great American furniture maker Duncan Phyfe showcase his signature use of neoclassical elements from the elegant English Regency style.  Paul Revere, in his role as one of America's pre-eminent silversmiths, is represented by several examples of the sophisticated tea wares for which he is best known.  In contrast is a restrained, yet sophisticated, silver coffee pot by Nathaniel Austin from John and Abigail Adams' presidential silver service.  The collection also includes a number of lovely pieces of Chinese export porcelain and both English and American porcelains, most notably pieces from the dinner service of President James Madison and a pair of French mantel vases sporting images of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.


Westward Expansion

In the early years of the 19th century, under the administration of Thomas Jefferson, America began turning its vision westward.  Numerous expeditions began to explore the lands of the Louisiana Purchase and beyond. The American public was fascinated with images of the landscape and Native American inhabitants of the West, represented in the exhibition by a magnificent painting of the Green River in Wyoming by Thomas Moran and a Native American scene by John Mix Stanley, among others.  American art of this period also began to celebrate the everyday life of the nation, from politics to trade: a scene of Boston Harbor by the great Luminist painter Fitz Hugh Lane and George Caleb Bingham's famous election engravings are several of the more prominent works in this section.  Both intriguing object and historical artifact, a trick-leg mahogany card table by Duncan Phyfe memorializes the statesman Henry Clay to whom it once belonged. (left: Thomas Moran, The Cliffs of Green River, Wyoming, 1900, oil on canvas, 20 x 30 inches, One of more than 30 paintings of this subject painted by Moran over a 40-year period, 1987.0026, Photography by Will Brown)


Exhibition of American Medals

In association with Becoming a Nation, the Museum is also organizing an exhibition from its collection of American medals, which range from rare early presidential medals and Revolutionary War commemoratives, to modern day examples of the medallic arts that are a recent gift from former Senator Mark Hatfield.  Two Portland private collectors of early American documents have also agreed to loan presidential letters and other historic documents to this exhibition to contextualize and enrich the presentation of these small jewels of American political and art history. 


After premiering at the Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon, the exhibition will be on view at the Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, Georgia (July 3 - August 31, 2003); Fresno Metropolitan Museum, California (September 26 - December 14, 2003); Society of the Four Arts, Palm Beach, Florida (January 2 - February 8, 2004); Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio (February 27 - April 25, 2004); Huntsville Museum of Art, Alabama (May 21 - July 18, 2004); Sioux City Art Center, Iowa (August 13 - October 10, 2004); and Portland Museum of Art, Maine (October 28, 2004 - January 2, 2005).

Organized by The Trust for Museum Exhibitions, the exhibition is curated in Portland by Margaret Bullock, Associate Curator of American Art at the Portland Art Museum. A full-color catalogue accompanying the exhibition is available in the Museum shop.

rev. 8/19/02, 2/19/04

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Portland Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

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