What's happening here?
These objects all come from the Decorative Arts collection and have been placed within the American Art wing to show how vases like this, notice that they feature Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, may have been put on display in an elegant early 19th century American home on a table like that one.
Could you please tell me who is the figure behind Thomas Jefferson?
The profile to the left of Jefferson a sculpture bust of Benjamin Franklin, who was a celebrity of his day. The Sèvres porcelain manufactory produced multiple busts of the first U.S. Ambassador to France. While this pair of vases are 'Sevres style', their maker is unknown.
Are those trophies?
They do look like trophies, don't they? They're really ornamental objects that people in the 1800s would have wanted in their home. The vases are shaped like ones in ancient Greece, where democracy was first practiced.
The USA was a new country at the time and people wanted to draw associations between the new Republic and its ancient prototypes.
What technique was used to place the images on the vases?
The portraits are painted directly on the vases in a durable enamel paint. The vases are made of porcelain and heavily gilded. The heavy gilding was typical of early 19th century decoration.
These vases, depicting Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, speak to the level of honor and celebrity surrounding the Founding Fathers of the US.
Can you tell us more?
This pair of vases feature the second and third presidents of the United States---John Adams and Thomas Jefferson---who both died on the same day: July 4, 1826.
They are in the Empire style, which was part of the later phase of the Neoclassical period. It is called this because the style was driven by designers working in France during the Napoleonic Empire, and often featured objects that glorified Napoleon. In America, designers were looking to France for design inspiration, thus it is also called the Empire Style in America.
Notice the abundance of gilding - this was typical of early 19th-century porcelain decoration. By this time, Europeans had been making porcelain for over 100 years and no longer wished to draw attention to the pure white surface of porcelain, as they had when this material was still new and celebrated.