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

April 2003 - January 2005

 

Seldom is it possible to offer an exhibition that is truly unique. Yet the Trust for Museum Exhibitions (TME) is touring an exhibition of selected treasures from one of the most extraordinary collections of Americana in the world. Chosen from the period settings of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State - one of the nation's least-known cultural treasures - 170 objects are touring the country for the first time.

Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State features the best craftsmanship and artistic talent of the golden age of American decorative and fine arts, from approximately 1750 to 1825. Included among the best examples ever produced of American fine art and decorative arts are paintings, furniture, porcelain and silver of the Colonial and Federal periods.

Highlighting outstanding examples of America's achievement in the arts between the mid 18th and early 19th centuries are a great Philadelphia high chest attributed to Joseph Deleveau, an exquisite settee by Duncan Phyfe, paintings by Copley, Stuart, Sully and C.W. Peale, silver by Paul Revere, John Le Tellier and Myer Myers, porcelain belonging to George Washington with the crest of the Society of the Cincinnati, pewter and other wonderful objects made by the best American artists and craftsmen of the time, and owned by America's illustrious founders.

These icons of American history not only tell the story of our forebears: they are essential to documenting the early days of the Department of State and the origins of American foreign policy. These are objects that illuminate the climactic events and towering personalities that were instrumental in the birth of the nation. They also highlight another important aspect of the early republic - that America shared in the elegance and grandeur of the Age of Enlightenment. The early Americans who owned these works and the artisans who made them clearly had sophisticated aesthetics. a rational sense of function, and high technical skills. The people who shaped these objects shaped more than physical beauty. They shaped a national consciousness. (right: 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)

The Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the Department of Stale and the White House are the two greatest mirrors of America's remarkable cultural accomplishments in fine and decorative arts of the 18th and 19th centuries. Here visiting Chiefs of State, Heads of Government. Foreign Ministers, as well as other distinguished foreign and American guests are entertained officially.

The Diplomatic Reception Rooms opened in 1961. Then they were very much like the rest of the modern Slate Department building, wall to wall carpeting on concrete floors, brown paneled walls like offices and ugly acoustical ceilings. The exterior walls of the entire eighth floor (where the Diplomatic Rooms are located) were floor to ceiling plate glass with exposed steel beams.

The Diplomatic Reception Rooms have been transformed into a setting worthy of the beautiful objects that reside there.

Rizzoli International is publishing a 200-page catalogue to accompany the exhibition. The principal essay is written by exhibition curator Jonathan Fairbanks, former Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts. Boston. Entries for the objects are written by 16 of the country's most respected experts on the fine and decorative arts. Consulting on the catalogue and exhibition is Gail Serfaty, Curator of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms and successor to Clement E. Conger who conceived and assembled this great national collection to affirm the elegance of America's democratic republic and to promulgate these aspects of America's heritage to the rest of the world.

In the words of Wendell Garrett, editor at large for the magazine Antiques, "The period settings of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the Department of State are a viable and invaluable form of historical documentation. One of the nation's least known cultural treasures, this collection of American decorative and fine arts ranks as one of the premier assemblages of its kind in the world. These works represent the 'best and the brightest' of America's achievements in the arts between about 1740 and 1825."

The Guest Curator for the exhibition is Jonathan Fairbanks, Curator Emeritus of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Jonathan Fairbanks has been a distinguished contributor to the study and preservation of American culture and arts for more than forty years. Mr. Fairbanks is an authority on three dimensional and decorative arts of the Americas including furniture, glass, ceramics, silver and Native American art.

During twenty-eight years with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston Mr. Fairbanks founded the Department of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture. He was the curator or the department until 1999 when he became the Katherine Lane Weems Curator or American Decorative Arts and Sculpture, Emeritus.

 

Itinerary

 
Portland Art Museum - Portland, OR
April 11 - June 8, 2003
 
 
Georgia Museum of Art - Athens, GA
July 3 - August 31, 2003
 
 
Fresno Metropolitan Museum - Fresno, CA
September 26 - December 14, 2003
 
 
Society of the Four Arts - Palm Beach, FL
January 2 - February 8, 2004
 
 
Cincinnati Art Museum - Cincinnati, OH
February 27 - April 25, 2004
 
 
Huntsville Museum of Art - Huntsville, AL
May 21 - July 18, 2004
 
 
Sioux City Art Center - Sioux City, IA
August 13 - October 10, 2004
 
 
Portland Museum of Art - Portland, ME
November 4, 2004 - January 2, 2005

Following is selected text from the exhibition's gallery guide:

 

CHARTING THE NEW WORLD

The discovery of the New World altered the global view of those who lived in the Old. The maps in the exhibition by Europeans Theodore DeBry, John Smith, and Herman Moll represent some of the earliest visions-not always entirely accurate ones-of the new land. Portraits, such as Gilbert Stuart's famous icon of George Washington, and history paintings, including imaginative depictions of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock and William Penn's treaty ceremony with the Indians, often reflect what Americans wished to believe about themselves and the origins of their nation. Nineteenth-century landscape paintings recording the vast American territory and familiar historical subjects such as The Spirit of '76, by Archibald Willard, helped Americans develop an image that is a complex mixture of realism and idealism.

Affluent Americans in the eighteenth century also reflected an image of themselves in the acquisition of household objects representing the "polite arts" -- furniture, silver, china, and other objects both imported from abroad and fashioned in this country by local cabinetmakers, silversmiths, and other artisans. In most urban centers of early America, England was the model of taste and fashion. A mahogany bombe desk and bookcase made in 1753 by Benjamin Frothingham, Jr., of Charlestown, Massachusetts, is a masterpiece of the Anglo-American furniture-making tradition and comparable to London-made furniture of the era. Even after the Revolution, many Americans still favored objects in the English taste, as witnessed by the Sheffield-plate wine cooler ordered in the late 1780s by George Washington.

 

THE LOOK OF COLONIAL AMERICA

By about 1725, many well-off Americans were able to take part in the trans-Atlantic market for household furnishings. Cabinetmakers and silversmiths in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and other urban centers often competed successfully with the English for the patronage of wealthy colonial merchants and other customers.

In the decades preceding the Revolution, stylish objects were produced in two distinctive modes. Beginning as early as 1715, and flourishing from about 1730 to 1760, objects made in a manner known today as late baroque, early Georgian, or Queen Anne style displayed quiet design that emphasizes the line and form of the object, with selective ornament placed sparingly on broad surfaces. A succeeding style, popular from mid-century into the 1780s, employed lively, sweeping, sometimes asymmetrical patterns and flourishes that art historians identify as rococo and collectors term the Chippendale style. In Philadelphia, for example, cabinetmakers and carvers produced exuberant furniture with opulent, naturalistic, floral carving that represents the high point of this style in America.

American furniture and silver of this period can often be classified on the basis of its regional characteristics. The preferences of local patrons for certain forms, such as the bombé shape in Boston, helped create regional traditions, as did the highly refined skills of specialist craftsmen, including carvers, turners, and engravers, who often worked for more than one craftsman's shop and thus placed their stamp on an entire city's output. In Rhode Island, the small, intertwined community of furniture craftsmen, including the Goddard and Townsend families, produced exceptional block-and-shell furniture that represents a major American contribution to the history of design.

 

THE ROAD TO INDEPENDENCE

As Americans were producing outstanding furniture and silver in an Anglo-American style, the colonists' political relationship with Great Britain was rapidly unraveling. Art played a role in this process. For example, Paul Revere's engraving of the events of March 5, 1770, depicting British redcoats firing upon the unarmed citizens of Boston, transformed and elevated the incident into The Bloody Massacre -- a murder of innocent martyrs -- that helped radicalize the American public and move the colonies closer to independence.

The paintings and other works of art in this part of the exhibition are associated with the momentous years of the Revolution. Many of them were owned by key figures who played essential roles in the formation of the country, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and the Marquis de Lafayette. Some objects, such as a peace medal, a United States seal, and a skippet (a box originally suspended from an international treaty in order to protect its wax seal), are tangible reminders of the importance of statesmanship and diplomacy in establishing the new nation. A cluster of objects associated with the Society of the Cincinnati -- a fraternal society comprised of officers of the Continental Army and their French allies -- demonstrates the importance of the concept of the citizen-soldier and the significance of national and international relationships in the aftermath of independence.

 

A NEW NATION EMBRACES NEOCLASSICISM

The international style known as neoclassicism (new adaptations of the arts of ancient Greece and Rome) was eagerly adopted by America in the years following the Revolution, supplanting the earlier rococo style. Neoclassicism -- light, refined, and elegant -- represented more than new ornamental forms; it was a new way of fostering the symbolic connections between the classical world and the modern world. It was an especially potent style for the new republic, and the links with classical virtues were stressed not only in the arts, but also in politics, education, and manners.

There were several phases of neoclassicism. Generally, the evolution of design moved from delicate forms and ornament, often called the federal style and prevalent from 1790 to 1820, toward more robust, heavier, and classically academic forms, commonly termed the Empire style and popular from 1815 to 1830 (represented by the furniture of the famous New York cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe). The urn -- used on objects as various as brass andirons and silver bowls -- and the eagle -- carved or inlaid on furniture, for example -- were two of the most popular classical motifs.

Direct trade with Asia and continental Europe, available to American merchants after the Revolution for the first time, brought Chinese porcelain, French ceramics, and other foreign goods to American homes. These colorful imported wares enlivened and enriched neoclassical interiors with exotic touches from the Far East and expressions of sophisticated European taste.

 

THE NATION EXPANDS WESTWARD

The nineteenth century was an era of extraordinary change in America. New forms of transportation accelerated the movement of goods and people. The Northwest Territory and the Far West, largely unknown and unsettled regions at the time of the Lewis and Clark transcontinental expedition, gradually became connected to the eastern seaboard with the advent of the railroad. Canals and locks connected coastal harbors to inland waterways as the coasts increasingly attracted new cultures and goods. The works of art in this section illuminate the expansion of the United States. As the continent was absorbed by the nation, the abundance of this new territory, its vast and sublime landscape, and its varied peoples were celebrated with images of the "American canvas."

One way to look at this era is through the portraits of its leaders, such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Henry Clay. Values of nineteenth-century America are reflected in impressive views of land and sea by Thomas Moran and Fitz Hugh Lane, genre scenes after George Caleb Bingham and William Sidney Mount, prints by Currier and Ives that disseminated to a wide audience popular images of the new land, and works by John Mix Stanley and Cyrus Dallin that depicted the ambiguity of white attitudes toward the native peoples of America. The Department of State Collection affirms the strength -- artistic and otherwise -- of a country rooted both in a continual renewal of tradition and in innovation, expressed through the creativity of its immigrants. We are indeed a "nation of nations," one where, as proclaimed on the banner of the Great Seal of the United States, the many have become one.

The Trust for Museum Exhibitions (TME) is a Washington. D.C. based non-profit service organization committed to providing the finest in exhibition and technical support to museums and cultural centers throughout the U.S. and abroad. The Trust for Museum Exhibitions is located at 1424 16th Street, NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036.

 

Editor's note: RLM readers may also enjoy these earlier articles:

 

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


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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