Upcoming Events

SCHOLARSHIP INFORMATION

THE BELLANGÉ FURNITURE OF THE WHITE HOUSE

Thanks to the Decorative Arts Trust, Leslie Jones, a Masters Candidate in the Smithsonian and Corcoran graduate program in the History of Decorative Arts, was able to travel to the Adams Historic Site in Quincy, Massachusetts. There she documented, examined, and photographed two side chairs from a larger suite of furniture ordered by James Monroe in 1817 for the White House. The visit revealed a great deal about the furniture’s use and history in the Adams family.

The “Old House”, or “Peacefield” at the Adams Historic Site is home to the two side chairs acquired by Charles Francis Adams. Built in 1731, this house was home to John, John Quincy, and several generations of Adams descendants. It became a National Park Service site in 1927.

In 1817, following the burning of the White House by the British, Washington, DC, slowly began to rise from the ashes and regain its firm hold as the capital of the United States. In this endeavor, the President’s House was rebuilt and refurnished in a manner reflecting its prior existence, yet updated to the most modern conveniences and tastes. President James Monroe took charge and oversaw the final phases of this project. The Elliptical Drawing Room, which is now referred to as the “Blue Room,” functioned as the main entrance to the President’s House prior to the addition of the North Portico in the 1830s. The best-known Parisian cabinetmaker was enlisted to produce furnishings for this important space: M. Pierre-Antoine Bellangé. Bellangé was a trusted and skilled ébéniste having worked for the Napoleonic Empire and the restored Monarchy. Bellangé’s creations arrived in Alexandria, Virginia in 1817: a suite of gilded beechwood begères, armchairs, side chairs, settees, stools, a firescreen, and a pier table all, but the table, upholstered in a rich red damask with gold laurel wreaths and depictions of eagles.

The two side chairs currently in the parlor of the Old House sit on either side of a pier table. These two chairs were made originally for the White House in 1817 and were upholstered in a rich crimson damask.

Through subsequent Presidential administrations, the Bellangé seating furniture, like all furniture, was used and abused. President Jackson had several pieces reupholstered and used them in various rooms. Although the aesthetics of the furniture’s decorative elements slowly went out of fashion, respect for their symbolic importance kept them in active use.

A detail of the front seat rail showing the carved laurel and sunburst decoration. The unique leaf motif on the two front legs has been described as acanthus or lotus leaves.

In 1860 a major renovation of the interior space took place under the guidance of Harriet Lane, President James Buchanan’s niece and acting White House hostess. The Bellangé furniture’s long lineage in the President’s House was no longer seen as nostalgic, but more of a nuisance. Ms. Lane took the responsibility of redecorating in the contemporary Victorian rococo-revival style. In order to generate sufficient funds for her project, the Bellangé suite was sold at auction.

Although hard to see, this photo shows the maker’s stamp: P. BELLANGÉ. French cabinetmakers at this time, 1817, were not required to stamp their work, yet Bellangé understood the importance of signing work that would be exported.

J.C. McGuire and Company auctioned off the suite as individual objects to several unknown purchasers. One of the fortunate buyers happened to be the descendant of two American Presidents, Charles Francis Adams. At this particular auction, Adams also obtained a desk used by his father, John Quincy Adams, and other furnishings with family connections. Even though no correlation exists between John Quincy Adams and the two Bellangé side chairs Charles Francis Adams purchased, these two chairs stayed with the Adams family for the next four generations moving from Washington, DC, to the Adams family home in Quincy, Massachusetts.

The desk used by John Quincy Adams and purchased by Charles Francis Adams at the 1860 auction.

Following the 1960 discovery of the original Bellangé pier table in White House storage, which then provoked the nationally broadcast White House tour, the resurrection of the Bellangé suite’s importance spurred the return of one of the original chairs to the White House. Through careful research, the two side chairs at Quincy were identified and swiftly approached for acquisition into the White House collection. Charles Francis Adams, descendant of the first Charles Francis, declined the First Lady’s request, but, instead funded nine reproductions of the two side chairs at Quincy for the White House. They continue to be actively used today along with eight of the original chairs and one settee, which were all gifted to the White House in the 1960s and 1970s.

Although the suite of furniture has a well-documented history in the White House from 1817–1860 and from the first original chair returning in 1961 until the present, little information is known about the objects in their one hundred year occupancy elsewhere. My Masters thesis will be an historic analysis of this furniture throughout its history, both in use within the White House and the private homes of those who acquired it through the 1860 auction.

BACK TO TOP