Once upon a time, in 1918, the U.S. House of Representatives received a gift of two porcelain vases. They were exquisite. Commanding attention, standing nearly six feet tall, the attractive vessels were a gesture from France expressing gratitude for America’s role in World War I.
Following elegant lines of the Art Nouveau style, the shapes of these head-turners are identical. Slightly flared necks and generous shoulders taper gracefully, ending in decorative brass stands. Eight vertical undulating panels display an eye-catching, colorful crystalline glaze, whose variations show the individual personalities of these twins. Their playful looks were created by a mix of oxides and quartz fired on the vases at high temperatures. The resulting blue and green blooms float effortlessly upward, like bubbles rising to the surface.
Porcelain production is taken for granted today, but more than 300 years ago porcelain was a hot commodity in Europe, second only to gold. Already in production in China, imported porcelain was, in scholar Janet Gleason's words “an irresistible symbol of prestige, power and good taste.” European chemists accepted challenges from kings and wealthy patrons to join the race to discover how to produce this coveted “white gold” domestically.
Germany crossed the finish line first and the kilns at Meissen were cashing in on the porcelain mania by 1708. France noodled with recipes until the mid-18th century before finally mastering the art and alchemy of porcelain at the Manufacture Royale de Porcelaines de France at Sèvres.
As one might deduce, the vases given by France to the House were made in this national factory at Sèvres. The enormous pieces from the early 1900s were quite possibly exaggerated advertisements for the company, showing off its ability to keep up with modern tastes. Before coming to the Capitol, both vases represented France at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. One of the vases still has its paper exhibition label glued to the bottom.
It was an extraordinary and precious gift. But where are the vases now?
The tale has a happy ending. The Sèvres vases live in grand, wood-paneled niches built just for them in the Rayburn Room in the House wing of the Capitol Building. They hold court every day over meetings between constituents and legislators, porcelain stars of the House Collection.
Sources: Janet Gleason, The Arcanum (Bantum Press, 1998); Art Nouveau 1890-1914 (V&A Publications, 2000); Marie Soulas, The French Pavilion and Its Contents (n.p., 1915)Follow @USHouseHistory