Diplomatic Reception Rooms

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Materials Spotlight: Porcelain

By: The Office of Fine Arts and  |  November 8, 2021
A display of rare porcelains in the Entrance Hall of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms.

Porcelain has fascinated people for centuries. Although common today, this hard-surfaced, lightweight, translucent ceramic — once made only in Chinese kilns — had the power to charm European royalty, who thought it as valuable as gold and used it to enhance their prestige. Europeans who settled in North America also prized porcelain, and, as in Europe, objects of this wondrous material served as symbols of high social and political status. In many ways, the porcelains in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms possess the same ability to fascinate. Made in China, France, England, and America, these porcelains are treasured because they commemorate events in national and international trade and diplomacy, and celebrate the achievements of American statesmen.

During the 17th century, when Europeans were colonizing North America, trade between Europe and East Asia increased rapidly. Silks, tea, and porcelains were chief among the Chinese and Japanese goods coming into Lisbon, Rotterdam, London, and other European ports. Porcelain—plates, cups, saucers, serving dishes, and vases—whether from China (Canton) or Japan (Imari)—were commonly referred to as “china.” By the early 18th century, Asian porcelain wares were being collected as art by European royalty and displayed in their palaces. But soon porcelain came down from display shelves, replacing silver service pieces on banquet tables. At royal courts, when nobles, generals, statesmen, and ambassadors gathered to negotiate treaties and conduct affairs of state, the use of porcelain from China and Japan signaled wealth and refined taste. So porcelain gained a role in diplomacy.

Chinese Export Porcelain Punch Bowl depicting the Hongs of Canton
Chinese Export Porcelain Punch Bowl depicting the Hongs of Canton. Artist Unknown. China, ca. 1780. Ceramic; porcelain with overglaze polychrome enamels.

The ancient Chinese invented porcelain by mixing kaolin clay with selected minerals and firing their wares in extremely hot kilns, up to 2600°F. They long guarded the secret of porcelain’s manufacture and strictly regulated its trade through warehouses on the Canton waterfront called “factories” or “hongs.” To free themselves of these regulations, Europe’s royal collectors began sponsoring experiments with various kinds of clay and high firing temperatures so that porcelain could be made in their own countries. Their successes led to the establishment of state-subsidized potteries at Meissen in Saxony and Sèvres in France, where exquisite porcelains were produced for both royal courts and commerce.

Britain was slower to produce its own porcelain, but it imposed regulations on the trade in Chinese porcelain, insisting it be carried to its North American colonies in British ships. Independence ended these restrictions, and direct American trade with China began immediately. In 1784 a ship named Empress of China left New York for Canton, carrying animal furs and ginseng, a root believed to have healing power. It returned the next year with tea and some 65 tons of Chinese porcelain tableware in its cargo hold. The roundtrip voyage was the beginning of a brisk American trade with China that continued throughout the 19th century.

The patriotism that characterized the early years of the United States is evident in the Chinese porcelain that was made specifically for the American market. Porcelain’s hard surface is especially suitable for painted decoration, and Chinese porcelain painters working in the hongs quickly learned to decorate porcelain pieces with patriotic symbols from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. George Washington’s portrait appears on ceramics imported from China as well as from England and France.

Chinese Export Porcelain Orange Fitzhugh Eagle-Decorated Hot Water Dish
Chinese Export Porcelain Orange Fitzhugh Eagle-Decorated Hot Water Dish. Artist Unknown. China, ca. 1815. Ceramic; porcelain with overglaze polychrome enamels.

One of the most impressive symbols used on Chinese export porcelain for the American market was the Great Seal of the United States and its unofficial variations. Because the secretary of state is the keeper of the Great Seal of the United States, eagle-decorated wares are numerous in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms. In addition, while reflecting the attitude and spirit of an era, porcelain objects also celebrated historic events. Several pieces in the collection commemorate statesmen identified with the American Revolution, including Benjamin Franklin, signing a pair of treaties between France and the Continental Congress in 1778.

As the 18th century drew to a close, Chinese export wares continued to dominate the European and American markets. French porcelains, however, began to appear in the homes of prosperous Americans as symbols of important Franco-American political alliances. The demand for French porcelains also reflects Americans’ increasingly sophisticated tastes. The fashion for French wares coincided with the creation of Washington, D.C., as the nation’s capital. If Pierre-Charles L’Enfant’s great plans gave the city its Neoclassical façade, imported French porcelains carried out the decorative theme in gold and brilliant colors inside the White House and the homes of nation’s leaders.

While French porcelains appealed to the American upper classes during the first quarter of the 19th century, English pottery continued to be popular with most Americans. Despite the strains of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the potteries of Staffordshire maintained their successful trade with the former colonies. Americans continued to rely on the English ceramic industry and the ability of the English potteries to respond to American taste and political events.

In fact, English ceramics were so successfully promoted in the United States that American potteries did not seriously compete with them until after 1850. Imports of cheap, good-quality wares from England and fine wares from China and France made it difficult for Americans to establish their own enterprises. Although American porcelain was well made, it could not compete financially. Two porcelain potteries established in Philadelphia between 1770 and 1772 failed because British imports were less expensive. The first American factory to make porcelain for any period of time and to leave a substantial legacy of objects was started in 1826 in Philadelphia by William Ellis Tucker, the son of a Quaker schoolteacher. But, soon, even his manufactory closed.

Although many of the ceramics in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms were made to be used, not displayed, their function transcended those of simple household furnishings. Because of their patriotic decoration, personal associations, or historical importance, these porcelain wares are testaments to Americans who served their nation.


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