Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Capitol Art & Artifacts: Girandole

Girandole/tiles/non-collection/8/8_18_girandole_1_House_Girandole_2007_003_000.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
This decorative girandole mirror—adorned with an eagle, festoons, and trumpets—was once the property of Benjamin Brown French.
In a quiet corner of today’s Speaker’s Ceremonial Office hangs a girandole mirror. “Girandole” derives from the Italian word girandola, meaning firework or candlestick. Commonly it refers to a framed, round, convex mirror, with curved arms that end in candle holders. When candles are lit, light bounces off the mirror. The House’s girandole dates from the first half of the 19th century and boasts a Capitol provenance from its association with an early Clerk of the House of Representatives.

In mid-17th century Europe, the method of enhancing illumination with mirrors originated from a simple wall sconce (“plate candlestick”), a candle in front of a reflective surface. The practicality of the girandole developed from this modest tradition. More elaborate shapes bloomed in the 18th century through the influence of important designers such as English cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale.

Fast forward to 19th-century American interior decoration when imported furniture and design pattern books kept fashionable American clients current with trends in Europe. This included the popular girandole, now standardized by British designers to its familiar convex circular form. As universal as the design became, the House Collection’s example could have been made on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. The spread-winged eagle atop the mirror exudes the nationalistic spirit of the early 19th-century American Federal period of design, but that does not preclude an imported beginning for the mirror. This avian feature was already a staple among European girandoles.

Le Mariage à la ville, 1633, Abraham Bosse/tiles/non-collection/8/8_18_girandole_2_Bosse_plate_example_MuseeCarnavalet.xml Image courtesy of the Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris In Le Mariage à la ville, 1633, by Abraham Bosse, a plate sconce is shown illuminating the room.
The House’s girandole is associated with Benjamin Brown French, a politically connected public servant from New Hampshire, who held the esteemed post of Clerk of the House of Representatives from 1845 to 1847. French managed a nearly 40-year career in Washington that culminated in his 1853 appointment as Commissioner of Public Buildings. This post made him an integral player in overseeing the care of important buildings in Washington, including the Capitol and the White House.

Girandoles, in Chippendale Drawings, Vol.1, Thomas Chippendale, 1760/tiles/non-collection/8/8_18_girandole_3_ChippendaleDirector_MET.xml
Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art The candles are nearly lost in these elaborate examples of girandoles designed by Thomas Chippendale.
The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book in Three Parts, Thomas Sheraton, 1793/tiles/non-collection/8/8_18_girandole_4_SheratonDirector_MET.xml
Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Pattern books were sources of inspiration on both sides of the Atlantic.
Looking Glass, American, about 1800/tiles/non-collection/8/8_18_girandole_5_Girandole_MFABoston.xml
Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston This example of an American girandole demonstrates how quickly European design traveled to America.
According to anecdotal evidence, French acquired the girandole from the Capitol in the 1860s. Fortunately, he passed the mirror to his family, and it wandered its way through the careful hands and lives of his descendants. The family donated their heirloom back to the Capitol almost a century and a half later, connecting the girandole with its original home and bringing its journey full circle.

Sources: Charles Boyce, Dictionary of Furniture, (New York, NY: Checkmark Books, 2001); Donald B. Cole and John J. McDonough, Witness to the Young Republic, (University Press of New England, 1989); Jonathan L. Fairbanks and Elizabeth Bidwell Bates, American Furniture 1620 to the present, (New York City, NY: Richard Marek Publishers, 1981); Harold Osborne, ed., The Oxford Companion to the Decorative Arts, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985); L.G.G. Ramsey, ed., The Complete Encyclopedia of Antiques, (New York City: Hawthorne Books, Inc., 1968); Peter Thornton, Authentic Decor: The Domestic Interior 1620-1920, (London: Seven Dials, Cassell & Co., 2000); https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/girandole; https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/3977; http://dumbartonhouse.org/federal-period-1790-1830; https://www.whitehousehistory.org/benjamin-brown-french-in-the-lincoln-period; https://www.aoc.gov/node/910; https://aoc.gov/about-us/history/architects-of-the-capitol/edward-clark.