One of the most exceptional collections of Americana is, in fact, one of the least known. Yet, the Collection of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the United States Department of State in Washington, DC retains some of the finest examples of American paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, and furniture from the golden age of American art dating approximately 1750 to 1825. The Collection was formed in only 30 years by Clement Congor, the founding curator, and cost the taxpayers of this country nothing. Every artifact and every dollar for acquisition was provided through the generosity of individual and family donors.
The objects in the Collection were carefully selected for their extraordinary merit and beauty, and also because of their historical significance. Each sheds light on our unique history and the growth of our great nation. The State Department Rooms were created to provide the nation with surroundings fit for the business of American statesmen. They are generally on view on the eighth floor of the United States Department of State and are subjected to daily use by Ambassadors, Kings, Presidents, and visiting dignitaries from all over the world.
One hundred seventy exquisite objects from the Collection are being exhibited at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine from November 4, 2004 through January 2, 2005. Curated by Dr. Jonathan Fairbanks, the exhibition is beautifully mounted in the museum’s first floor galleries, extending up to additional second floor exhibition space. The grandeur of the location within the museum, the dramatic lighting, and the ability to view objects from upper galleries provides a magnificent setting that is appropriate to the Collection’s importance.
The objects included in the exhibition were obviously created for well-to-do early Americans with sophisticated tastes. But the artisans and craftsmen who shared their sense of aesthetic beauty demonstrate a rational sense of function and highly technical skills as well. These artists represent the common people who were just as much imbued with a sense of pride in their new nation. These artisans created works that emphasized the sound form, solid construction, and clarity of design that distinguish them from the more elaborate and overtly decorated imports of the period. Though their work derived from forms originally made in England and on the Continent, together these craftsmen brought to the world something uniquely American.
Charting the new world
The exhibition is divided into five sections, the first of which offers focus on maps, paintings, and charts that depict views and visions of the discovery of the New World by 15th century explorers and adventurers. The 1590 map of Virginia drafted by John White represents the oldest object in the collection. White accompanied the colonists of Roanoke Island, naming their settlement Virginia, after Elizabeth I, the virgin Queen of England. The map is oriented from the west, as if one were sailing directly from England. It is wondrously peopled with sailing ships, a sea monster, and figures of American Indians.
Paintings include Michele Felice Corne’s 1803 oil on canvas of the Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, which was painted for Elias Hasket Derby, Jr. of Salem, Massachusetts. Also featured in the exhibit are Benjamin West’s masterpiece, William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians and Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington dating to approximately 1803-1805. A gilt eagle wall plaque from Portsmouth, New Hampshire by John Haley Bellamy (1860-1880) and Archibald Willard’s Spirit of ’76 help to illustrate the sentiment of the Centennial Exposition of 1876.
The look of Colonial America
Magnificent decorative arts in the second section illustrate the fine craftsmanship available in Colonial America, shaped by the economic forces of this time, the development in political life, and the rising tension with England. On view is a Goddard-Townsend block-front bureau table, the rare China table produced by Robert Harrold (Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 1765-75), and a Boston bombé chest of drawers crafted by John Cogswell c.1770-1785. Silver by Myer Myers, Jacob Hurd, and Philip Synge, Jr. is on display in this gallery, along with a splendid Philadelphia upholstered sofa and armchairs. Each object is a showpiece and a testament to the American spirit.
One of the most monumental pieces of furniture in the exhibition is the Philadelphia high chest of drawers attributed to the cabinetmaker, Joseph Deliveau c.1760-1780. The architectural quality of this mahogany chest combines with the marvelous carved claw and ball feet, knees, and ornament to make a showpiece.
The road to independence
Statesmen and diplomats are highlighted in the next segment. Portraits of Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette, and a miniature portrait of Martha Jefferson are included here. An enamel eagle badge and ribbon from the Order of Cincinnati as well as an Order of the Cincinnati Certificate signed by George Washington on April 2, 1788 are other highlights. A 1793 silver peace medal by Philadelphia silversmith Joseph Richardson, Jr. marks a treaty between the United States and an Indian Nation, and an ivory and silver consular seal (1808-1809) by Peter and William Bateman offers testimony to the diplomatic needs of the new nation. Paul Revere, Jr.’s hand-colored copperplate engraving of The Bloody Massacre (later known as the Boston Massacre) brings to mind the patriotic fervor that brought this country to independence from English rule.
A nation united
Neoclassicism was the style of America’s Federal Period and represented a new way of thinking, of manners, and of understanding the links between the modern and ancient worlds. Outstanding examples of high style Federal furniture abound in this section along with silver by Paul Revere, Jr. and an 1800 urn-shape coffee pot by Nathaniel Austin that was owned by John and Abigail Adams. A portrait of John Jay by John Wesley Jarvis, multiple examples of furniture by Duncan Phyfe, and a pair of French porcelain mantel vases depicting the portraits of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin are highlights.
A handsome mahogany shelf clock by David Wood of Newburyport, Massachusetts produced in about 1815-1820, a less costly alternative to the eight-day tall case clocks, represents the end of an era and presages the mechanization of the New England clock business. There is China Trade porcelain, an English pearlware jug, and a French plate that represents luxury goods imported through America’s shipping trade as well. And again, a Federal square-back Salem side chair descended in the Crowninshield family and embellished with a carved reserve featuring an American eagle, serves as a celebration of the young nation’s patriotic pride.
The nation expands westward
Discovery, Bounty, and Beauty were part of Thomas Jefferson’s vision of the increase of America’s territory, particularly through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Curator Jonathan Fairbanks affirms, “The Far West was as much an attitude or state of mind as it was a measured space.” From the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, remarkable cultural and natural specimens made their way east and offered information about the lands and people west of the Missouri River. The 19th century was a time of tremendous change. It was the time of the railroad, of new canals and locks, and of the 1849 gold rush. The artifacts in this last section reinforce the power of the young nation as it expanded westward, growing and strengthening itself in the process.
The icons of American history and art that are included in this important exhibition tell the stories of our founding fathers. They are also essential to documenting the early days of the Department of State and the origins of American foreign policy. They remind the visitor of the climactic events leading to the forming of this nation and of the larger-than-life statesmen who participated. And they illustrate that the young United States shared in the grandeur and elegance of the Age of Enlightenment. nBecoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Portland Museum of Art, November 4, 2004 – January 2, 2005, Seven Congress Square, Portland, Maine 04101, (207) 775-6148. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue featuring essays by 16 of the country’s most respected experts on the fine and decorative arts. The catalogue is available in the Museum Shop for $35.
Written By: Randall Decoteau
Source: New England Antiques Journal