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This article originally appeared in Mount Vernon magazine, published three times a year by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.
During the presidential years, Martha and George Washington had a taste for French furnishings—but what happened to them all?
By Amy H. Henderson
We cherish items once used by significant historical figures. Museums the world over contain such authentic objects that purport to encapsulate essential moments in time, reveal the heroic qualities of individuals, and, ideally, bring us closer to the past. Things once owned by George Washington are of particularly exalted status. From the time Washington rose to national prominence, Americans saw his household furnishings as objects that bore witness not only to his admirable character, but also to the republican principles that led to the founding of their country. Today’s Mount Vernon is full of such objects, and it behooves us to ascertain—as well as we might—whether the objects we revere as relics and study for insight into the Washingtons were indeed their authentic possessions. A collection of Louis XVI-style chairs in the museum are just the kind of objects that deserve a deeper investigation into their authenticity, both because of what they tell us about George and Martha Washington’s commitment to hospitality and politeness during the presidential years, and because so much about them remains unknown.
The mystery of the Washingtons’ many French chairs began with Martha’s May 1789 arrival in New York City to establish the first family’s household. Congress had furnished a house for their use, and, although Martha would write her niece that it was “handsomely furnished all new for the General,” an inventory of the furnishings and surviving pieces suggest the décor was slightly outdated. Recognizing the importance of demonstrating to foreign visitors and American statesmen alike that the leader of this new nation was cultured and sophisticated, the Washingtons began to search for something more elegant. As luck would have it, a departing French ambassador to the United States, Éleanor-Francois Élie, Cômpte de Moustier, offered to sell them his stylish French furnishings rather than ship them back to Paris.
In addition to acquiring mahogany buffets, looking glasses and a complete service of Sèvres porcelain, the Washingtons became the owners of a suite of drawing room furniture consisting of 12 armchairs, six side chairs, and a sofa, all upholstered in green, flowered silk damask. We may presume the suite met their needs, for when Congress moved the capital to Philadelphia, the Washingtons hired a recent émigré, Parisian master upholsterer George Bertault, to make six additional side chairs and two stools to fill out the suite in the same style. This commission brought the total number of matching chairs to 24, a handsome number for the Washingtons’ social events.
These furnishings reveal much about the Washingtons during the presidency and the ways in which they interacted with the public. As first lady, Martha managed the social and political claims on the Washingtons’ time by hosting daily tea parties and weekly drawing rooms, called levees, in which the politically connected could converse about the state of the federal government or the latest play at the theater. Such genteel political sociability required sophisticated furniture to support and enhance the rituals of gentility. One of the two side chairs at Mount Vernon thought to hail from this set bears the maker’s mark for Jean-Baptist Lelarge, one of the finest master joiners in Louis XVI’s Paris. To many elite Americans, the French were then the undisputed arbiters of cosmopolitan taste. To decorate in such a refined, French neoclassical style was to align oneself not just with the elegance and sophistication of Europe, but also with the Enlightenment ideals of gentility and sociability that formed the basis of civil society.
For all that these objects can teach us about the Washingtons and their world, they also offer a puzzle. What happened to all these chairs? Perhaps there would be less mystery surrounding their fate had the Washingtons chosen to bring them home to Mount Vernon. As it happened, however, they offered the suite to John and Abigail Adams and, when the newly elected president and his wife declined to buy it, Washington had the ensemble auctioned off in Philadelphia in March 1797. No records survive to document the purchasers, although a later account claimed that “Many persons were desirous of having some relics of their belov’d Genl. and his drawing room chairs, were sold separately (two dozen).”
Over the course of the 19th century, a handful of French neoclassical chairs found their way into publications, exhibitions, and, eventually, historic sites—Mount Vernon included—with treasured stories that they once belonged to the presidential suite. Today, there are no fewer than six side chairs, seven armchairs, two stools, and a sofa in various museum and private collections that claim a Washington connection. Yet few of the pieces match stylistically. How could these mismatched chairs all be from the same suite? Were allowed by the Washingtons? To solve this puzzle, several museums have, in recent years, conducted paint and wood analysis and delved into provenance records, hoping to determine which pieces were most likely from de Moustier and Bertault and, therefore, those used by the Washingtons in the nation’s capital. To date, curators at Mount Vernon and Montpelier have identified four side chairs as the most likely survivors and ruled out the others on subtle differences in style, wood, and paint layers.
It remains a challenge, of course, to account for the treasured stories of association with George Washington that have become attached to the many attributed chairs. Although we may never be able to prove with absolute certainty whether any of these other French chairs did, in fact, belong to the presidential suite—and, thereby, guarantee their authenticity as Washington relics—the search remains essential. The true chairs are indeed material artifacts capable of revealing the small ways in which the Washingtons tied their new nation to the virtues of hospitality and sociability and thereby helped their country forge a new cultural identity.
Amy H. Henderson, Ph.D., is an art historian and museum consultant whose work focuses on gender, politics, and material culture in the early republic. She previously held a three-month fellowship at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon to research the Washingtons’ French chairs.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Mount Vernon magazine. Subscribe to the magazine by becoming a member today.Learn More