Published: January 6, 2004
“Becoming a Nation,” organized by the Trust for Museum Exhibitions and currently in the midst of an eight-city national tour, puts on public view 170 objects that represent the cream of the Americana collection from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the US Department of State. The complete collection of around 5,000 objects, displayed within 42 rooms on the top floor of the department’s C Street building in Washington, D.C., matches up in quality – if not in quantity – with great institutional collections such as those found in the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Winterthur.
Yet the purpose served by this assemblage in its governmental home is quite different from that of even the greatest museum collection. As US Secretary of State Colin Powell puts it in his introduction to the exhibition’s catalog, “The Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the Department of State are not only cultural treasures, they are invaluable diplomatic assets for our country. Appointed with fine and decorative arts of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, they serve as the setting for hundreds of official events every year … Those of us who have the privilege of entertaining in the Reception Rooms on behalf of the American people do so with great pride.”
Gail F. Serfaty, director of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, says, “We try to show as many wonderful objects as possible in an entertainment situation. It’s not a museum, so we can’t line things up – everything is used. Our guests, particularly foreign visitors who are here for only a few days and don’t have time to go to museums or be entertained in the private homes of collectors, have the opportunity while they’re here on official business to be in a museum atmosphere and see the best objects made in America during the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century.”
The catalyst for change proved to be Clement Conger, not an art historian but a longtime State Department official, who volunteered to form a Fine Arts Committee. “He was a career diplomat – he had worked on arms control and disarmament – and he really did this as a volunteer in the beginning,” explains Serfaty, who was also employed by the State Department at the time and joined Conger in the project. “It was coincidental that Mrs [Jacqueline] Kennedy was restoring the White House interiors at the same time, but there really was no relationship except perhaps an awareness of what each was doing at the other building.”
The original setting provided by the building’s eighth floor was so devoid of character that more than just the lack of furnishings had to be immediately addressed. New York antiques dealer Benjamin Ginsburg agreed to lend some antiques, but more important, he introduced Conger to interior designer and architect Edward Vason Jones (1909-1980), who began to redesign the rooms that would eventually contain the collections. The dreadful dropped ceilings and wall paneling disappeared, to be replaced by elaborate plaster detail and carved woodwork designs modeled on historic homes, such as the 1765 Powell House in Philadelphia and the Andrew Low house in Savannah, Ga., which Jones had restored. Today, after a trip through the modern entrance hall downstairs and the elevator ride, diplomatic visitors step out into gracious rooms of perfect scale for the elegant events they contain.
When first viewing the fine and decorative arts on tour from the State Department, tax-paying visitors might ask, What was the source of the acquisition money for these exhibits? In fact, the paintings, furniture, ceramics and silver were all donations or purchased with contributions from private citizens, corporations and foundations. For example, the striking portraits of John Quincy Adams and Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams in the current exhibition were the gift of three Adams family descendants. In similar fashion, descendants of Long Island silversmith Elias Pelletreau gave family silver in honor of a son in the foreign service.
Every secretary of state, starting with Dean Rusk in 1961, became involved in the project. Rusk managed to get the famous Houdon bust of Benjamin Franklin on loan and kept it in a prominent spot in his office, so that he could solicit funds for its purchase from visitors. As word got around, collectors claimed a gift to the project as a badge of honor. No one has been more supportive of the collection than the current secretary of state, Powell, who often gives foreign visitors a personal tour of the harmonious rooms to break the tension during sticky negotiations.
The examples chosen by guest curator Jonathan L. Fairbanks in “Becoming a Nation” represent some of the finest examples housed in the collection. Fairbanks was invited to organize the catalog and exhibition after his retirement from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “My favorite piece is the bombe desk and bookcase that Benjamin Frothingham of Charlestown, Mass., made in 1753,” he states. “It’s the progenitor of all those Boston bombes — the earliest documented and a magnificent work as well. And the Copley portrait of Mrs Montresor is truly one of the most stunning portraits of a woman executed by any American painter.”
As important as the bombe desk is a Philadelphia mahogany high chest of drawers, circa 1760-1780, which is deserving of equal appreciation. The rare piece belongs to the group of furniture whose surface decoration has been attributed to an anonymous master known as the “Garvan Carver.” David L. Barquist, associate curator of American decorative arts at the Yale University Art Gallery and author of the catalog entry on this case piece, says that the name – coined by furniture scholar Luke Beckerdite – is taken from the carver’s most published piece, another high chest in the Yale collection. Also on tour, a Philadelphia mahogany tilt-top tea table with a pedestal and tripod legs decorated by the same carver. Barquist notes, “He created rich effects of volume and shading through a distinctive use of detail cuts, particularly turned-over ends on the long leaves and clusters of parallel straight cuts to shade the ends of leaves.”
Among other notable objects in the exhibition are a china table with original pierced gallery, circa 1765-1775, attributed to Robert Harrold of Portsmouth, N.H.; a Chinese export dinner service in the Fitzhugh pattern decorated with eagle and shield for the American market; a sofa and pair of armchairs attributed to Duncan Phyfe’s workshop; and a silver tankard, circa 1785, by Myer Myers of New York. Silversmith and patriot Paul Revere, Jr, is represented in the exhibition by four pieces of silver – a coffee pot, teapot with stand, silver bowl and sugar basket – and a dramatic 1770 political broadside depicting “The Bloody Massacre” by the British.
The entries for the new catalog have been in many cases updated by the original contributors to Clement Conger’s 1991 reference Treasures of State. As many collectors know, Conger also had a hand in restoring the collections at the White House, after he was invited by the Nixons in 1970 to also take up the position of curator at the president’s residence.
As he began selecting objects for the exhibition, Jonathan Fairbanks faced the challenge of making the presentation as inclusive as possible for a national audience: “It was clear that the choices that Clem had made for his collection were focused largely on the period of the Founding Fathers, and that’s an appropriate focus. But we wanted to be more inclusive of a broader spectrum of Americana and to show how the nation grew. At first, I thought this would be difficult, but then I realized that the later periods could be well-documented through the paintings and prints, which develop the theme of western growth; for example, the print of a George Caleb Bingham painting from the Missouri frontier.” Other State Department works of art that develop this theme are John Mix Stanley’s “Barter for a Bride,” with images of Blackfoot Indians from the mid-Nineteenth Century, and Thomas Moran’s 1900 “The Cliffs of Green River, Wyoming.”
With so many objects from the collection on the road for two years, collectors might wonder if the Diplomatic Reception Rooms look empty. Gail Serfaty points out, “What we do miss in some ways is the paintings, almost more than the furniture. For portraits such as John Quincy Adams and his wife, we can’t really find replacements. With the Francis Scott Key chairs, we still have others from the set. We have virtually nothing in storage, but, in some cases, it’s been a nice opportunity to showcase pieces that were not as prominently displayed before. A case in point is a wonderful card table by John Goddard. It was in the gallery before, but now that it has been placed in a niche in the central part where the bombe secretary was, you see the movement of the carving so much more clearly.”
Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, compiled by Fairbanks, a handsome 232-page hardbound book released in conjunction with the exhibition, is available for $45, published by Rizzoli. Pieces from the exhibition are illustrated along with text by acknowledged authorities such as Robert Mussey, Jr, David Barquist and Ellen and Bert Denker.
In conclusion, Jonathan Fairbanks spoke of his high goals for the current tour: “I hope it will generate confidence and belief in American principles of the Englightenment that we got from Europe but transformed in a new language of government and workmanship. These pieces should inspire everybody for evermore. The same principles that went into the making of government, such as balance and symmetry, are embodied in the furniture. That’s part of the world of rationalism and enlightenment. I worked very hard to try to synthesize ideas that cut across not just furniture or painting but the culture. When we treat things separately, we lose the whole. You say that it’s a thing of beauty but what makes it beautiful? Craftsmanship is important but it’s the soul within the maker that ultimately counts, and that comes from his total experience engendered by the culture within which he works. These aren’t just things of beauty, these represent our civilization.”
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