First Lady Dolley Madison saved something in addition to George Washington’s portrait from the fire that almost destroyed the White House during the War of 1812.
Thanks to a new exhibit, “‘Something of Splendor’: Decorative Arts from the White House”, you have a rare opportunity to see that and other historic, artistic objects enjoyed only by US Presidents, their families, and their most important guests.
The free exhibit offers 95 stunning items from the White House, just one block away, at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The items were chosen “because they had great stories” as well as great beauty, said William Allman, curator of the White House. He and Melissa Naulin, assistant curator of the White House, selected the works, and gave a media tour.
Some have never been seen outside the “President’s House”. Here are just a few with fascinating stories and beauty:
- A mauve swatch of wallpaper set in a Chinese decorative box, which Dolley Madison gave as a present shortly before the British burned the White House in 1814.
- President George Washington’s mahogany desk c. 1800, attributed to James Hoban, who also designed the White House, and its post-fire repair. Hoban’s final touches, the North and South Porticos, were added in the 1820s.
- Exquisite armchairs ordered by President James Madison to refurbish the White House after the fire.
— An 1817 crimson silk-upholstered gilded beechwood chair, one of 53 pieces from a Parisian cabinetmaker. “There must have been an absolute explosion of gold furniture in the White House,” Allman commented. That French-manufactured “explosion” prompted Congress to require future Presidential furniture to be of “American manufacture”.
— The crimson chair is flanked by a mahogany chair upholstered in turquoise and gold silk, manufactured by the William King Jr. firm in the (still-posh) Georgetown section of Washington in 1818 for President James Monroe.
- Another of the most spectacular furniture pieces is a mahogany and satinwood 1800 sofa, upholstered in butterscotch satin and silk, once owned by senator and statesman Daniel Webster.
- An enormous table ornament is the “Hiawatha Boat”, an 1871 silver sculpture of the Longfellow heroine steering a masted canoe over a mirrored lake. A pet squirrel perches atop its mast.
- Another glorious silver piece, the oldest item displayed, is a tureen made in 1778-1779 for England’s first Duke of Northumberland, Hugh Smithson. His illegitimate son, scientist James Smithson, bequeathed his fortune to America – which he had never visited — to create an educational “Smithsonian Institution”.
- A turkey dinner plate with curved edges was one of 130 unique platter designs featuring native animals and plants, created for President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880.
- A coverlet for the famous “Lincoln bed” was crocheted from shoe thread by First Lady Grace Coolidge. “She hoped that each First Lady would create something representing their family life for the White House,” Allman noted. She crocheted her name, the national motto “E Pluribus Unum”, and patriotic symbols including the American eagle.
Some of these items had been sold at auction “back when it was perfectly legal to sell what was termed ‘decayed property’,” Allman said. President Chester A. Arthur “sent 24 wagonloads to the auction block.”
But some of those items, like the crimson gilded chair which was offered to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, was given back to the White House. Other pieces have been bought back.
Throughout history, the price of White House decorating has been criticized. Yes, the Reagan china is represented in the exhibit. Funds for decorating the East Wing ran out not once, but twice — in 1800 and again after the 1814 fire.
But the cost has been eloquently defended as well. Inventor and artist Samuel Morse commented in 1819 that the President’s House should be furnished with “something of splendor… for the credit of the nation.”
During President Martin Van Buren’s re-election campaign of 1840, his Whig opponents excoriated him for spending sums on the “sumptuous” and “dazzling” White House rooms. But one Whig congressman defended President Van Buren as “…the host of the nation. His guests are the guests of the people…Is it too much then, that the place and its appendages are beyond the requirements of private station?”
President Teddy Roosevelt disliked the decor that had become increasingly Victorian, and ordered a sweeping renovation. He praised the result as having “restored the White House to the beauty, dignity, and simplicity of its original plan.”
One of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s greatest accomplishments was restoring to White House to its full glory. She created the White House Office of the Curator, and the White House Historical Association. Both the Curator’s Office and the White House Historical Association are celebrating their 50th anniversary.
The exhibit is co-organized by the White House Curator’s Office, the White House Historical Association, and the Renwick, which specializes in America’s decorative arts and crafts.
As John F. Kennedy said, “Anything which dramatizes the great story of the United States – as I think the White House does – is worthy of closest attention and respect by Americans..”
This splendid exhibit is certainly worthy of your closest attention — and enjoyment.
For more info: Renwick Gallery, www.americanart.si.edu, Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC, 202- 633-7970. Admission is free for the exhibit that continues through May 6.