As Washington was setting up his presidential residence in New York City in the summer of 1789, he gave serious consideration to the proper accoutrements for his dining table, which he recognized would play a subtle but influential role in establishing the reputation of the new republic. Writing to Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816) in Paris, he asked the Philadelphia financier to assist him by acquiring a “surtout”—a set of porcelain figures plus a large mirrored tray on which to display them.
Such elaborate centerpieces had been popular among French nobility and at the royal court since the mid-18th century, using figures made first of sugar paste, and then white porcelain, often arranged in elaborate scenes. Morris sent Washington 15 classical figures and 2 vases, all made of unglazed white “biscuit” porcelain, produced at the manufactory of the Duc d’Angoulême, which, according to Morris, was less expensive but just as high-quality as the more prominent Sèvres porcelains.
The matte white surface of the biscuit porcelain resembled marble, making these figures miniature versions of classical statuary. Washington’s set represented popular gods and goddesses in Roman mythology, including the Apollo (god of the sun), Cupid (god of desire), Venus (goddess of love), Minerva (goddess of wisdom), and Flora (goddess of spring). Such figures visually communicated shared aspirations to the republican principles of the ancient world, and guests at Washington’s weekly dinners for government officials and foreign emissaries commented approvingly on the display.
When Washington retired in 1797, he displayed several bisque porcelain figures in the New Room, including the Angoulême pieces as well as additional figures of musicians and cherubs that he acquired from New York and Philadelphia merchants specializing in fashionable French goods. Several of these pieces survived in the family of Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Martha Parke Custis Peter, and have returned to Mount Vernon; they are displayed in the Museum galleries, which provide a less dusty environment for their delicate surfaces. They are represented in the New Room today by two biscuit porcelain figure groups depicting Venus and Cupid, made ca. 1785 by Locré et Russinger, a Parisian porcelain manufactory that produced wares similar to Angoulême and Sèvres. They are displayed on the sideboards, under protective glass domes, just as Gouverneur Morris recommended to Washington, to “preserve them from the Dust & Flies.”
Bisque porcelain figural group of Venus and Cupids, made by Duc d'Angoulême's porcelain factory, Paris, c. 1790. Purchase, 1957. (W-2133) Learn More