Exhibitions at Rienzi
Rienzi’s exhibitions, presented biannually, explore elements of the house museum and 18th- and 19th-century European decorative arts in depth, actively engaging visitors in a dialogue with the Rienzi Collection. Free with Rienzi admission.
Grand Designs: Neoclassical Taste in the 18th Century
September 17, 2016–February 20, 2017
Throughout the 18th century, thousands of young aristocratic tourists traveled to Italy to take part in the Grand Tour. Many of them visited archaeological sites and purchased antiquities to decorate their grand houses back home. They also bought and commissioned a rich variety of decorative arts inspired by antique models that were considered the height of refined taste.
This exhibition explores the history and conservation of The Dundas Sofa, commissioned by Scottish businessman Sir Lawrence Dundas from two titans of English design: architect Robert Adam and furniture maker Thomas Chippendale.
The Lavish Prince Regent
March 5–July 31, 2016
Prior to his accession to the British throne in 1821, King George IV served as Prince Regent of the nation during the mental illness and incapacitation of his father, George III. The prince led an extravagant lifestyle before and during his regency that held great sway over the fashions of the day, and he advocated new forms of leisure, style, and taste.
During this period, he built the famous Royal Pavilion in Brighton, which was an Orientalist fantasy in architecture. As with the pavilion, the “Regency Style” that the prince created was a mixture of the antique and the exotic, the gilded and the decorated—and with an interest in elegant innovation.
The Lavish Prince Regent presents a survey of this most sumptuous of historical styles.
À la Mode: Fashioning European Silver, 1680–1825
October 10, 2015–February 7, 2016
For centuries, silver was one of the most popular expressions of style and taste, with its universal appeal and powerful hold on the imagination making it the necessary luxury. Silver was designed for almost every occasion, from everyday drinking and dining to commemorating christenings and weddings.
À la Mode draws from the rich holdings of the MFAH, Rienzi, and two private collections to explore the social life of silver. The exhibition shows how prevailing attitudes and changes in fashion determined the form and function of objects, and how people thought about and lived with silver.
Rienzi Library: Highlights from a House
February 28–July 26, 2015
Libraries have always provided rich insight into the intellectual curiosity and tastes of their creators. The Rienzi Library is no exception, reflecting the intimate, personal expressions of its founders, Carroll Sterling Masterson and Harris Masterson III.
Rienzi, the Mastersons’ stylish River Oaks home, became part of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 1999. Today, the house museum holds one of the finest public collections of European decorative arts in the Southwest, with a diverse array of objects from British painting to French porcelain to precious objects. The Rienzi Library reflects this eclectic nature. Not only does it encompass Harris Masterson’s enduring interests in literature, history, drama, peerage, bindings, and children’s books—it also includes Carroll Masterson’s appreciation for cooking and the culinary arts.
Developed over 50 years, their 2,300-volume collection remains a vital element of the house and the collection. Among the highlights are examples of fine graphic design and bindings, as well as early publications by authors such as Washington Irving, Niccolò Machiavelli, A. A. Milne, Christina Rossetti, and William Shakespeare.
This exhibition explores the many treasures of the Rienzi Library, shedding light on the personal lives that helped shape this prominent Houston home.
Comfort and the Eighteenth-Century Interior
September 13, 2014–February 1, 2015
Eighteenth-century porcelain, silver, furniture, and textiles from the MFAH collections show that objects were often designed to improve people's physical or emotional well-being simply by making life more comfortable.
Creatures of Comfort: 1650–1950
Rienzi's 15th Anniversary Symposium
September 19–21, 2014
Porcelain in Bloom in the Rienzi Collection
March 1–June 29, 2014
Rienzi is pretty any time of year, but it is especially lovely in the spring when the bulbs, azaleas, and flowering trees are in full bloom. This year, Rienzi celebrates spring both inside and out of doors.
Although the garden flowers may be fleeting, Rienzi's distinguished collection of 18th-century European porcelain is always bursting with beautifully painted flowers. Produced by large factories and small studios with painters working from their own imaginations and printed sources, these flowers are an excellent example of the 18th-century interest in the botanical world. Celebrating Spring provides an opportunity to see these splendid porcelain works at close range—not just for their beauty, but also for the stories behind their creation.
While touching on a number of European porcelain makers, the exhibition focuses on the Rienzi Collection’s celebrated collection of Worcester porcelain (1752–90). The dining-room table is set with the hand-painted Flora Danica dinner service, produced by the Royal Copenhagen Porcelain Manufactory since 1862, and purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Harris Masterson III in the early 1960s.
Architect John F. Staub and the Mastersons
October 12, 2013–January 31, 2014
In 1952, Harris Masterson III sketched his ideal family home, a symmetrical one-story residence with classical ornament on the front and a cantilevered, Modernist glass-and-steel facade on the back. From these two sketches, Rienzi was born.
Carroll Sterling and Harris Masterson III engaged legendary Houston architect John F. Staub to design their River Oaks home. "The plan and interiors you have outlined are extremely attractive, and the desired combination of Palladian with contemporary offers an interesting challenge," wrote Staub in response to Mr. Masterson's designs. The thoughtful collaboration that ensued resulted in a rare example of mid-century Modernism and European Classicism combined with a theatricality that speaks to the character, era, and spirit of the 20th-century Texas family living there.
Using original documents and photographs from the MFAH Archives and the Woodson Research Center at Rice University, Rienzi Begins: Architect John F. Staub and the Mastersons traces the genesis of this unique house from the Mastersons purchasing land from Miss Ima Hogg in 1951, through early acquisitions for its interiors, to its completion in 1953. Rienzi Begins highlights the working relationship between Staub and Mr. Masterson. As part of the exhibition, an original bathroom—designed by Staub for Mrs. Masterson’s teenage daughter—is on view for the first time. Lined in Norwegian Rose marble, the 1950s dream bathroom features a sunken bathtub and a crystal chandelier, and it opens to a poolside terrace.
The Wedding Dress
March 3–June 30, 2013
Known for its exceptional collection of European decorative arts, Rienzi was the longtime home of Houston philanthropists Carroll Sterling Masterson and Harris Masterson III. The Wedding Dress celebrated the history of this family and its home through the story of a beloved heirloom. From the first wedding reception in 1957, the family has celebrated marriages of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren at Rienzi. At the center of the story is a gown made of antique peau d’ange silk and a veil of antique Brussels rose-point lace. It was made for Isla Carroll Cowan for her marriage to T. R. Reckling III in 1957. The dress and veil were worn by three generations of women, all of whom had wedding receptions at the family home. This installation showcased the wedding dress and the veil along with images of the brides and views of Rienzi’s wedding celebrations over the decades.
Visions of Fancy: George Romney, 18th-Century Paintings and Drawings
October 14, 2012–January 20, 2013
A leading artist of late-18th-century England, George Romney (1734–1802) worked among an elite circle of British painters, including Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, whose patrons were made up of London’s fashionable society. Romney established himself as a society portrait painter, with a style of elegance and informality that won him a prestigious client list. Visions of Fancy presented examples of these finished works along with a small collection of the artist’s sketches and preparatory drawings, which express his aspirations toward historical and literary subjects. A highlight was the bound sketchbook from 1783 showing figures in spontaneous motion on each page. Although Romney gained prestige for his portraits, his drawings show the hand of a powerful and sensitive draftsman, and an innovative artist.
Dancing on Gilded Foot: KPM Porcelain at Rienzi
March 9–July 30, 2012
By the mid-18th century, porcelain—a material of no intrinsic value—became the most important diplomatic currency in Europe. Previously a rare and coveted collector’s item in Europe imported from the Far East, this exotic substance fueled competition among European circles to produce wares of exquisite beauty, quality, and execution. Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, endeavored to establish a porcelain manufactory matching the renown of his military achievements. By 1763, he had personally taken control of a Berlin factory, making the Königliche Porzellan Manufaktur (Royal Porcelain Manufactory) a private, royal property. The manufactory became known for its lively patterns taken from nature, and Neoclassical elements, decorating its wares with finely painted images of astonishing complexity. The detail and quality of the factory’s painting and gilding set it apart and brought much prestige to the court. This exhibition presented pieces of KPM porcelain spanning 100 years, culminating in a monumental, circa 1850 Fruchtschale (fruit stand), one of the most magnificent examples of the factory's skills.
English Taste: The Art of Dining in the Eighteenth Century
September 17, 2011–January 19, 2012
The first special exhibition ever held at Rienzi, English Taste treated visitors to a dining-room extravaganza. The 18th-century English dinner table was a feast for the eyes. In order to impress their guests and assure them that they were dining amid fashionable people of consequence, hosts served sumptuous dishes, adorned with towering sugar constructions and amusing trompe l'oeil (fool-the-eye) jellies of playing cards or bacon and eggs, all on exquisite silver and porcelain. Gracing Rienzi's table—complete with lavish, Georgian silver fittings and place settings—were lifelike fish, fowl, and flummeries created by English food historian Ivan Day with guidance from the influential period cookbook The Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffald, the “Martha Stewart of the 18th century.” Click here for a video tour.