Dolley Madison was one of the new capitals most gregarious and gracious hostesses. The circumstances of this set’s acquisition by the Madisons tells a great deal about the relationships between politics, taste, and personalities in Washington, D.C., at the dawn of the 19th century.
When United States Congressman James Madison (1751–1836) married the young widow Dolley Payne Todd (1768–1849) in 1794, his close friend and political ally, James Monroe (1758–1831), came to his aid in providing furnishings suitable for Madison’s new social position and role as head of an active household including Dolley’s young son and teenage niece.1Hunt-Jones, 18–19. Monroe, then in France as Minister Plenipotentiary, volunteered to acquire goods in Paris for the Madisons. He sent furniture, textiles, and china in 1795 and 1796. When the Monroes returned from France in 1797, the Madisons again purchased items from them, which the Monroes had brought to America for sale to friends.2Ibid., 20.
As Republicans and loyal followers of Thomas Jefferson, Monroe and Madison identified strongly with France and, like Jefferson, sought to furnish their homes in the latest French style to reflect their intellectual and political inclinations.
James Madison resigned from Congress in 1797 and left Philadelphia to take up scientific farming at Montpelier in Orange County, Virginia. Jefferson’s election as President in 1801 and his appointment of Madison as Secretary of State brought the family to Washington, D.C., then under construction as the new capital. Dolley became the widower Jefferson’s official hostess and the Madisons’ house on F Street became an important social center in the city.
The Madisons were given the opportunity to choose silver, glassware, and china from the Monroes’ furnishings when James Monroe was sent to Paris in 1803 to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase.3Ibid., 22. Among the contents of the four boxes shipped by Monroe’s Richmond agent in May was a set of twelve china coffee cups and saucers. While this may well have been the set to which the Collection’s cup and saucer belonged, the documents describing this sale and earlier transactions between Madison and Monroe are not sufficiently detailed to trace the sale of the “M” china to a specific date. However, the fact that the French coffee cups and saucers came to the Madisons via the Monroes—as a Paris purchase for the Madisons personally or from among the Monroes’ belongings—seems fairly certain.4New research into the accounts of Monroe and Madison may uncover a more descriptive document (telephone conversation between the Madison scholar Conover Hunt and this author, Ellen Denker, January 11, 1990).
The china, which also included a dozen tea cups and saucers and a tea set, must have been treated with great care throughout Madison’s presidency (1809–1817) and retirement, since it appears nearly intact in inventories taken at Montpelier in 1836 and in Washington between 1837 and 1843.5Hunt-Jones, 120–121, app. 3, 4, and 5. After Mrs. Madison’s death, however, the “M” china was dispersed and only two coffee cups and three saucers from the set are known today.6Another coffee cup and saucer from the set are in the White House, acquired by Mr. Conger (then Curator of the White House and State Department) in 1972; the saucer is in a private collection. The cup and saucer descended in the Madison-Cutts families; see ibid., 138, fig. 28. The Department of State’s cup and saucer was one of two probably acquired between 1849 and 1852 by Dr. James H. Causten and his wife, Dolley’s niece, Annie Payne. In 1899, their daughter, Mary Causten Kunkel, sold the two cups and saucers at auction in Philadelphia along with many other Madison objects inherited from her parents.7The cups and saucers brought $14.00 each (Henkels, 8). A priced copy of the catalogue is at Winterthur. The whereabouts of the second cup and saucer is unknown. This sale also included a small sketch of the initial “M” as it appears on these cups and saucers, along with the affidavit that the drawing “executed by Dolley P. Madison . . . was designed for her Chinaware.” The drawing, affidavit, and a copy of the Kunkel catalogue were acquired by the Department of State with the cup and saucer. Although Mrs. Madison may have designed the initial “M” and sent the drawing to Paris for the Monroes to purchase a set of monogrammed china for the Madisons, it is also possible that the drawing was made after the china was purchased by the Madisons, especially if the set was originally owned by the Monroes. In fact, the drawing may have been a copy by Mrs. Madison from her favorite French china for use by craftsmen who engraved the initial “M” to replicate the “M” on a beaker, cake basket, and locket that survive from the Madisons’ belongings. Despite her mother’s close contact with Dolley Madison, Mrs. Kunkel, who was quite young at her mother’s death, could have confused the original purpose of the drawing. See Hunt-Jones, 126 n. 35; further discussed in a 1990 telephone conversation between Hunt and Denker.
Ellen Paul Denker and Bert R. Denker
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.