A rare look at objects in the White House Collection

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  • July 21, 2011

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Seymour desk and bookcase, 1798-1808, mahogany, reverse painted glass, photo courtesy White House Historical Association.

“'Something of Splendor’: Decorative Arts from the White House” opens Oct. 1 at the Renwick Gallery, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s branch museum for craft and decorative arts, and closes May 6, 2012. The exhibition features 93 objects from the permanent collection of the White House, including furniture, ceramics, metals, glass and textiles. Many of these objects were made by the most celebrated craftsmen of their time and some have never been seen outside of the White House. William G. Allman, curator of the White House, and Melissa C. Naulin, assistant curator of the White House, selected the works included in the exhibition.

The exhibition, organized in honor of the 50th anniversary of the White House Historical Association, allows visitors to explore the history of the decorative arts in the nation’s foremost home.

The exhibition and its related publication will include archival images of the interiors to help the visitor envision life in the President’s official residence. Objects in the exhibition range from a box lined with wallpaper used in the White House prior to its burning in 1814 to a gilded Herter Brothers armchair from 1875 to a coverlet embroidered by First Lady Grace Coolidge between 1925 and 1927 to a service plate from the 1982 Reagan state china.

“Each artwork in ‘Something of Splendor’ has a rich story to tell, and White House curators William Allman and Melissa Naulin are gifted tellers of these stories,” said Elizabeth Broun, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “Through their eyes and the lens of history, we see these rare objects as touchstones of our democracy. We cannot know the presidents and first ladies who are gone, but through the objects they chose to live with, we can understand something of their dreams for the nation.”

“The White House is often called the ‘People’s House’ and it has been our pleasure and privilege this past half century to bring to the people of America and nations across the world a better understanding of its rich history,” said Neil W. Horstman, president of the White House Historical

Rufus Porter, The President's House, Overmantel painting, about1824, watercolor on plaster, photo by Erik Kvalsvik, photo courtesy White House Historical Association

“The White House embodies the story of how the presidents and their families live, work and entertain within its historic walls and among its historic furnishings,” said Allman. “Noted artist and inventor Samuel Morse commented in 1819 that the President’s House should be furnished with ‘something of splendor… for the credit of the nation.’ We hope this exhibition imparts some of the rich history of the decorative arts of the White House.”

The White House interiors were refurbished repeatedly in modern styles throughout the 19th century. In 1902, noted New York architects McKim, Mead & White were hired to make the interior of the White House more stylistically compatible with its late 18th-century architecture. This major renovation, accompanied by significant sales of old furnishings, gave the public rooms a more formal and ceremonial character that they retain today.

Many objects have grown venerable with the building, while others have been acquired as part of an ongoing program, begun in 1961 by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, to restore the historical ambience of the rooms. Kennedy envisioned the White House as an ideal showcase of American fine and decorative arts for the enjoyment and education of both American and foreign visitors. She brought in the first curator to supervise the creation of a museum collection, fostered the creation of the White House Historical Association in 1961 and worked with an advisory body that formally became the Committee for the Preservation of the White House in 1964. Each subsequent first lady has contributed to these acquisition and preservation efforts.

Dining Room Table-Monroe Plateau

The museum, in collaboration with the White House Historical Association, is producing a film in which first families offer their personal recollections and memories about living in America’s most famous home. It includes interviews with Susan Ford Bales, Laura Bush, Rosalynn Carter, Tricia Nixon Cox and Lynda Bird Johnson Robb. The film, produced by Northern Light Productions in Boston, will be shown continuously in the exhibition galleries in a special screening room and it will be available for sale in the museum store.

An illustrated catalog, Something of Splendor: Decorative Arts from the White House, will accompany the exhibition. The forthcoming book is published by the White House Historical Association as one of several projects commemorating the 50th anniversary of its founding. Authors Allman and Naulin present an introduction to the history of the White House collection followed by interpretive essays about more than 60 decorative arts objects displayed in the exhibition. The book opens with forewords by Horstman and Broun. It will be for sale ($14.95) in the museum store and online.

Public Programs
Several free public programs are planned in conjunction with the exhibition, including a talk by Allman Saturday, Oct. 1, at 2 p.m. and personal recollections of living in the White House by Bales Thursday, Oct. 13, at noon. A full list of programs and complete descriptions are available online at americanart.si.edu.

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