Philadelphia, PA (June 28, 2006) -- The Philadelphia Museum of Art announced today that it 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 U.S. 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 unique 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 will go on view in Gallery 106 on July 1, 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.”
“These objects are quite revealing of aspects of American culture at different moments in our history,” Curator of American Decorative Arts David Barquist said. “In nearly every case the taste of the President and First Lady mirrors prevailing tastes of the period, from the romance and elegance of the 19th century seen in the Grant state service, with its beautiful botanical imagery, to the post-war dazzle of the Eisenhower service plates, rimmed with a raised-medallion gold border that almost looks like a fireworks display.”
The McNeil Collection is particularly strong in china from the early Presidential administrations, most notably numerous objects that belonged to George Washington (1st President, 1789-1797). Notwithstanding his reputation for physical courage and military skill, Washington “acknowledged the social importance of a fashionably equipped dining table,” according to Susan Gray Detweiler, author of George Washington’s Chinaware. “Throughout his lifetime of public service and private occupation, Washington participated substantially in matters of domestic taste and decor.” Washington furnished the first President’s House (as it was then called) with his own private china, which had been purchased from the Count de Moustier, the French minister who was forced to leave New York for Paris at the outbreak of the French Revolution. The McNeil collection includes four pieces of white and gold Sèvres porcelain that Washington purchased from de Moustier, as well as examples of Chinese export porcelain in the 'blue and white' style that was used by the Washingtons at Mount Vernon and later in the first Presidential residences in New York and Philadelphia.The influence of the French and their elegant style on American decorative arts and furnishings was considerable in the early years of the U.S. Republic, and formal settings purchased by early Presidential administrations were of neoclassical design (much like the architecture of Washington, D.C. itself), which was thought to reflect the founding fathers’ reverence for Athenian democratic ideals.
Following the War of 1812 when the President’s House was reconstructed after British troops set it afire, James Monroe (5th 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. His French porcelain featured explicitly nationalistic imagery, with the Arms of the United States presented in the center as an ascendant eagle, and vignettes in the border representing strength, commerce, agriculture, the arts, and science. The elaborate design of his china, which was used with magnificent gilt centerpieces, reflects this commander-in-chief’s decidedly aristocratic tastes. “Monroe believed the U.S. needed to compete with other leading nations on their own terms,” according to Barquist. “He wanted Americans to be perceived as equal to the Europeans in every respect.”
Of the state services in the McNeil Collection, the one commissioned by Rutherford B. Hayes (19th President, 1877-1881) is especially distinctive. Designed by Theodore B. Davis and manufactured by Haviland & Co. of Limoges, France, it contains elaborate depictions of American flora and fauna. Davis’ lively designs are a colorful blending of form and function that includes representations of crab, shad, smelt, Spanish mackerel, (for soup and fish plates) wild turkey and buffalo (dinner plates), and a whimsical set of ice cream plates made to resemble snow shoes. Much admired was the oyster plate, whose blue ocean background contrasts strikingly with the iridescent white interior of five blue-point oysters, which are molded into the plate. Davis, who was known as a civil war artist, worked on the Hayes commission in his Asbury Park, New Jersey studio, drawing on the extensive knowledge of native flowers, animals and birds he had gained during years of travel throughout the U.S. on assignment for Harper’s Weekly.
When she received the china in 1880, First Lady Lucy W. Hayes wrote to the artist: “It is a delight to study the beautiful forms and paintings. One almost feels as if such Ceramic art should be used for no other purpose except to gratify the eye.”
It wasn’t until the 20th 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, DC, it was fabricated by Lenox China of Trenton, New Jersey; 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 24 carat gold in the center. Not every president had commissioned new china while in office, and patterns of previous administrations are frequently re-used, demonstrating that personal taste crosses political party lines. The Wilson pattern was reordered during the administrations of Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, and Clinton, making it the most frequently re-ordered service in the history of the White House. Jacqueline Kennedy’s favorite china service was that of Republican Benjamin Harrison (23rd President, 1889-1893), and she often used the Truman/Eisenhower china for large dinners. On state occasions Mrs. George H.W. Bush (wife of the 41st President, 1989-1993) was known to use the Lyndon Johnson (36th President, 1963-1969) china, which highlights more than 40 different American wildflowers according to the wishes of Lady Bird Johnson, who collaborated with designers from Tiffany & Co. on the service. Mrs. Johnson felt the wildflowers would “portray not only the beauty of nature, but also the life-giving qualities of our land” and reflect “our contemporary concern for conservation and beautification.”
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.
Part of the plans for the Museum’s future expansion of the American galleries will be a gallery dedicated to the permanent display of the McNeil Collection of American Presidential China.
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 U.S. Subsequently, he acquired numerous pieces and became interested in further research on these and related American objects. The Barra Foundation, which he created in 1963, has supported conservation, preservation and resource materials in this field, including the publication of Margaret Klapthor’s Official White House China in 1975 and 1999. In 2002, with support from McNeil, the Museum has established a center for the study of American art. The Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art promotes the exploration of the artistic and cultural heritage of the United States in general and the Philadelphia area in particular, through lectures, symposia, programs, fellowships, publications, research and collaboration. Dr. Kathleen Foster, the Robert L. McNeil, Jr. Curator of American Art, serves as Director of the Center. Selections from the McNeil collection were included in the nine-venue traveling exhibition American Presidential China in 1976 (organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service), and have been exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the White House, Mount Vernon, the Hermitage in Nashville, and the Musée de Luxembourg, Paris.
About the American Art Collection
The importance of the Philadelphia region as a center for artistic production for over 300 years and the strength of history and tradition in the city assured the Museum's strong commitment to American arts. Today the collection, which continues to grow rapidly, is recognized as one of the finest public holdings of American art in existence, with major examples of decorative arts, painting, and sculpture that have been acquired steadily since the Museum’s founding in 1876.