Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

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Web Property of the U.S. Department of State


Object Details

Imperial Porcelain Manufactory (Russian, founded 1744)
ca. 1786-1788
Austria: Vienna
ceramic; porcelain
Various sizes
Associated with Joseph II, Emperor of Austria (reigned 1765-1790)
All pieces are marked with a underglaze blue shield and impressed with date ciphers "88" and "98;" the platter has an impressed "M" (but no. "98").
Credit Line
Gift of Mr. Lawrence Sakiel
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

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ceramic; porcelain with overglaze polychrome enamels

Object Essay

The age of Enlightenment fostered reform of many kinds throughout the Western world. In America and France it led to revolution. For the Austrian Empire, however, attempts at reform came directly from Emperor Joseph II (reigned 1765–1790), a philosophe who redefined the serfs’ relationship to landlords and the land and sought to standardize the administration of justice.1In 1765, Joseph II (1741–1790) succeeded his father Francis I, but ruled with his mother Maria Theresa (1717–1780) until her death. Although the two agreed in general on social reforms that were needed, their methods were quite different. In 1780, Maria Theresa’s subtle maneuvering was replaced by the more forceful activities of the impatient Joseph. Although his zeal proved to be shortsighted, the intellectual atmosphere in Vienna during the 1780s was undoubtedly sympathetic to the production of the table service from which these four pieces survive.

The portraits of patriots John Dickinson, Henry Laurens, and Horatio Gates appear on the plates, while the platter bears the portrait of Maria Christina, sister of Joseph II, Leopold II, and Marie-Antoinette. The statesman John Dickinson (1732–1808) of Delaware and Pennsylvania, who argued for conciliation, was most famous in America and Europe for his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies (1768). Henry Laurens (1724–1792), a merchant of Charleston, South Carolina, was elected President of the Continental Congress in 1777. After his release from two years’ imprisonment in the Tower of London, he joined Franklin, Adams, and Jay in Paris just before the Treaty was signed in 1782. (For a portrait of him, see Acc. No. 65.24) Horatio Gates (1728–1806), a distinguished British officer during the French and Indian War, was best known for obtaining the timely surrender of General John Burgoyne at Saratoga (See Acc. No. 71.67).2For profiles of these three patriots, see DAB, s.v. “John Dickinson,” “Henry Laurens,” and “Horatio Gates.”

All three men were in Philadelphia in 1779 when Pierre Eugene Du Simitierre, a Swiss born Philadelphia artist, was sketching leading patriots of the Revolution. In 1781, fourteen of his sketches were engraved by Benoit Louis Prevost in Paris. The orientation of the portraits, however, suggests that the decoration of these three plates was probably taken from a pirated version of Benoit’s engravings.3Prevost’s 1781 sets were stolen by the British while in transit from Paris to Philadelphia. In 1783, two pirated versions of the engravings were published in London by Richardson Wilkinson and William Richardson. The Wilkinson set perpetuated errors in Prevost’s engravings in which the names and portraits of William Henry Drayton and John Dickinson were confused. Subsequent editions of Wilkinson corrected the error. Thus, the decorator of these plates would have used the Richardson version or later editions of Wilkinson’s engravings as the sources for these portraits. If additional pieces from this service are discovered, they can be expected to include portraits of Drayton, George Washington, Baron von Steuben, John Jay, Charles Thomson, Gouverneur Morris, Samuel Huntington, Silas Deane, and Joseph Reed. For more on the Drayton-Dickinson confusion and the various sets of engravings of Du Simitierre’s drawings, see Teitelman, 51–55.

The Imperial Porcelain Manufactory at Vienna had been in decline for some time in 1784 when Emperor Joseph II installed Konrad Sörgel as director of the operation.4Fay-Halle and Mundt, 59–60. The impressed date mark “88” denotes the year the porcelain was made. Presumably the service was decorated shortly thereafter. Röntgen, 182 and 575. An effective businessman, Sörgel revived the factory in short order by introducing improved organizational and business procedures and by hiring Anton Grassi (1755–1807) as artistic director. Under Grassi, the rococo style typical of the factory gave way to the more fashionable neoclassicism that is evident in this service.

Ellen Paul Denker and Bert R. Denker

Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.