Saturday, March 17, 2012

"Something of Splendor": Decorative Arts from the White House

Where: Renwick Gallery

When: through May 6, 2012

I wasn't sure what to expect when I went to see this show, and I wasn't relishing the long walk over to the Renwick and back (which eats into the time I have for exhibit viewing), but in the event, it was a wonderful show and a wonderful day for a walk, so it couldn't have been a better trip.  Washington, DC is having an early spring - the cherry blossom trees are flowering as I type, a good two weeks earlier than normal.  The White House area was decked with Union Jacks and American flags to greet Prime Minister Cameron who was paying a visit, making for a festival atmosphere at Lafayette Park.

The show itself is great - lots of furniture, serving pieces and other decorative items from the White House.  It's quite interesting to see how tastes have changed in the last 200+ years.  The show celebrates the 50th anniversary of the White House Historical Association, and many of the pieces have never been seen outside of the White House before.

I learned that the Theodore Roosevelt administration saw an extensive renovation of the White House, giving the reception rooms their current look.  The highlight of the show for me was seeing one of the Gustav Stickley bookcases that Edith Roosevelt bought to display some of the White House china, the precursor to the China Room.  I love Stickley furniture, and I don't think I've ever seen a real original Stickley piece before.

Jackie Kennedy initiated an ongoing museum program to preserve the White House's furnishings and decorations, so we have her to thank for this collection.  One of the most interesting items on display is a small box, lined with wallpaper from the Madison administration, picked by Dolley Madison herself.  This is one of the few things left from the original White House, which was burned by the British during the War of 1812.

I very much liked the Lincoln china pattern, several pieces of which were on display.  The accent color is a reddish-purple, new at the time.  It makes a nice change from the seemingly endless blue pieces.  Another interesting piece is a coverlet for the bed in the Lincoln bedroom, made by Grace Coolidge.  Her hope is that future First Ladies would each make something for the house, but to date, she is the only person to have done so.  There is a piece of furniture made at Val-Kill, the factory on Franklin Roosevelt's estate, Hyde Park.  Eleanor Roosevelt brought the piece to the White House.

A fun fact: the Benjamin Harrisons were afraid of electric light - the servants had to turn the lights on and off for them.  That's what I love about going to these exhibits - you learn so many odd little things.

Verdict: This is a show well worth the time to see.  Fun, interesting, educational - something for everyone.

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