Art and Artifacts
George Washington's Journey to the Rayburn Room
George Washington presides over any gathering in the Rayburn Room. He posed for artist Gilbert Stuart in 1796 for the famous Lansdowne portrait, the basis for this portrait of the first chief executive. Washington posed four separate times for Stuart, the foremost American portrait painter of his day. The resulting works became the standard images of Washington. The Washington portrait in the Rayburn Room is an early copy of the Lansdowne portrait, by an unknown artist. The painting once belonged to the American Embassy in Madrid, Spain, placed there by a grateful American. Richard Meade, a well-to-do Philadelphia merchant and art collector working for the U.S. Navy in Spain, became embroiled in the settlement of an estate indebted to the Spanish government. This landed him prison in 1816. Pressure from the United States government gained his release in 1818. Meade immediately wrote to the American minister to Spain that “I brought with me to this city a portrait of General Washington. It is my wish to present the same to the legation of my country.” He made good on his offer and marked the painting with an inscription at the top of the canvas that noted the circumstances.
In the 1951, Washington’s portrait made the voyage back to America, at the behest of Representative James G. Fulton, who espied it on an official visit to Madrid. The portrait first appeared in Statuary Hall, in the spot where another portrait of Washington in the House Collection hung a century before. The East Front extension plans for the Rayburn Room designated a spot for the portrait, where it has been displayed since the room’s completion in 1962.
The Sèvres Vases
The pair of stunning Sèvres vases in the Rayburn Room arrived at the Capitol in 1918. They were given to the House of Representatives by the French government as an expression of thanks to the United States for its aid in the First World War. They were made at the National Manufactory of Sèvres in the early 20th century. The pair travelled to San Francisco, California, to represent France at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 before coming to the Capitol. Once here, they were displayed in the Speaker’s Lobby for years.
Standing nearly six feet tall, the vases were moved to niches in the Rayburn Room designed just for them, flanking the Washington portrait. Identical in shape, the vases have a fluid shape, in the art nouveau style. Each is composed of eight sinuously lined, tapering panels. These facets are glazed in an unusual, and at the time, cutting-edge, technique. The unusual, irregular patterns were created by a crystalline glaze, which randomly sprinkled powdered quartz and oxides across the surfaces. Exceptionally high firing temperatures cause the minerals to “bloom,” creating the organic patterns of fluffy shapes in shades of blue and green, which seem to float atop the earth-toned ground.