Published: July 11, 2006
The Philadelphia Museum of Art has been given the Robert L. McNeil Jr Collection of American Presidential china, considered the finest outside the White House. The collection includes more than 450 wares designed for and used by US Presidents from George Washington to Ronald Reagan and provides a material record of the history of the United States from its beginnings as a nation.
From the pomp and circumstance of a state dinner served on James Monroe’s gilt-edged French porcelain service to a quiet family dinner served on the understated Wedgwood creamware brought from the Georgetown home of John F. Kennedy when he took office, the McNeil collection offers a rare glimpse at life inside America’s “First Residence,” and the evolution of the taste, style and aspirations of the emerging republic. A selection of 50 highlights from the McNeil Collection is now on view in Gallery 106, marking its first time on public view in 25 years.
“This is like fireworks on the Fourth of July,” said Anne d’Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “The museum has always had a strong commitment to American arts, and to the decorative arts in particular. We are deeply grateful to Bob McNeil for this spectacular act of generosity that will further enhance the museum’s collection while offering a wonderfully distinctive material means to explore the social and cultural history of the United States.”
The McNeil collection is particularly strong in china from the early presidential administrations, most notably numerous objects that belonged to George Washington (first President, 1789-1797). His courage and military skill aside, Washington “acknowledged the social importance of a fashionably equipped dining table,” according to Susan Gray Detweiler, author of George Washington’s Chinaware.
The influence of the French and their elegant style onAmerican decorative arts and furnishings was considerable in theearly years of the US Republic, and formal settings purchased byearly Presidential administrations were of neoclassical design(much like the architecture of Washington, D.C., itself), which wasthought to reflect the Founding Fathers’ reverence for Atheniandemocratic ideals.
Following the War of 1812 when the President’s House was reconstructed after British troops set it afire, James Monroe (fifth President, 1817-1825), ordered what is the earliest surviving official government purchase of china, examples of which are in the McNeil collection. Monroe actively participated in refurnishing the White House, and believed its décor should befit the mansion’s architectural dignity.
Of the state services in the McNeil collection, the one commissioned by Rutherford B. Hayes (19th President, 1877-1881) is distinctive. Designed by Theodore B. Davis and manufactured by Haviland & Co. of Limoges, France, it contains elaborate depictions of American flora and fauna.
It was not until the Twentieth Century that the first American-made porcelain state service was purchased, by Woodrow Wilson (28th President, 1913-1921). Designed by Dulin & Martin Co. of Washington, D.C., it was fabricated by Lenox China of Trenton, N.J.; the service plates feature a dark blue cobalt border edged by a wide gilt rim and an inner band bearing gilt stars and stripes, with the presidential arms in raised 24K gold in the center.
Not every president had commissioned new china while inoffice, and patterns of previous administrations are frequentlyreused. The Wilson pattern was reordered during the administrationsof Harding, Coolidge, Hoover and Clinton, making it the mostfrequently reordered service in the history of the White House.Jacqueline Kennedy’s favorite china service was that of RepublicanBenjamin Harrison (23rd President, 1889-1893), and she often usedthe Truman/Eisenhower china for large dinners.
The most recent piece in the collection is a red and gold-bordered plate designed for a special breakfast at the Reagan White House in 1984 honoring the living First Ladies, which features each of their signatures on the reverse.
McNeil’s collecting of White House china started with the 1960 purchase of a Chinese Export porcelain plate from George Washington’s “Cincinnati” service, which bears the eagle emblem of the Society of the Cincinnati, the oldest military hereditary society in the United States.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street. For information, 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.
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