Sunday, December 11, 2016

The James Monroe surtout de table, on display in the State Dining Room

When architect James Hoban designed the White House, he failed to say which rooms were which. So future occupants basically made them into whatever they wanted. What is now the State Dining Room was originally the President's office. After the White House was burned by the British in 1814, President James Monroe decided to make the massive room into a state dining room.

One of Monroe's most important purchases for the new State Dining Room were several ornamental ormolu (or bronze doré) pieces.

The surtout de table was one of these. Also known as a plateau, this was a richly detailed centerpiece used to hold fruit, desserts, savories, or liqueurs. They were usually made of gold-gilt bronze or brass, but silver or porcelain ones were also common. The centerpiece stands on small legs, and its floor is mirrored. It has a finely wrought rim depicting fruit, leaves, and vines. The plateau comes in sections, so it can be expanded or reduced as needed. Slots in the rim or floor allow the statuettes and candelabra to be removed, and for pedestals to be inserted on which small serving plates can be placed.

Crafted by Denière et Matelin in France, the Monroe plateau is 14 feet long when fully extended. The piece has seven sections, each 24 inches long. Seventeen bacchantes (personifications of the female servants of Bacchus, the ancient Roman god of wine) standing on orbs, their outstretched arms holding candleholders, can be inserted into small holes at equidistant points around the centerpiece.

Although surtout de table were common in elegant English and French dining rooms, few Americans had seen them and the piece deeply impressed those who saw it.

On the plateau is visible are three ormolu pedestals. The smaller ones in the foreground and (barely visible) in the background are empty, and the much larger one in the middle-ground holds flowers. These pedestals depict the Three Graces holding up a basket. A crystal vase would have been placed in the basket, but these vases have long been broken or lost.

Visible on the table is an ormolu pedestal stand, or trepied. This consists of sphinxes standing on slender legs, their upraised wings supporting a shallow bowl. Fruit has been placed in the bowl.

Here is a closeup of one of the ormolu pedestals. You can see how the crystal vase would have easily sat in the bowl.

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