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Researching the Renovation of a Period Room
As the digital media interpretive media fellow at the de Young and the Legion of Honor, my primary role is to digitally document and interpret the yearlong project The Salon Doré: The Conservation of a Period Room, currently underway at the Legion of Honor.
This year, curators and conservators will work together to restore an entire 18th-century French period room known as the Salon Doré. Comprised of hundreds of components, including intricate gilded pilasters and panels, plaster overdoors, silk upholstered chairs and draperies, and a wooden parquet floor, the Salon Doré conservation project will be one of the most extensive ever conducted by the Museums.
Throughout the project, my role will be to capture and interpret various aspects of this substantial undertaking, which will be posted on the Museums’ YouTube channel, the website, and here on the blog.
I recently sat down with Martin Chapman, curator in charge of European decorative arts, to discuss the project. Chapman’s research has been instrumental in uncovering new art historical information, including the exact location of the original Salon Doré.
Since its first known installation in 1781 the room has been moved six times, following the itineraries and interests of collectors, art dealers, and museums. It finally made its way into the permanent collection at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco in 1959.
As a result of its lengthy migration, the Salon Doré has experienced significant wear and tear. The goal of the current conservation project is to restore—as far as possible—the entire structure to its original state as an 18th-century salon de compagnie, or reception room.
Brinker Ferguson (BF): What were your methods for tracing both the roots and routes of this historic room through the past 200 years?
Martin Chapman (MC): The initial sources for research were our departmental files, previous publications on this paneled room, as well as general information on 18th-century French interiors. When I went through the Museums’ files trying to understand this important object, it became evident that it had not been installed according to its original plan. This is a serious problem for an 18th-century French neoclassical interior, where proportion, rhythm, and balance are so essential to the overall dynamic of the room. The paneling appeared to be stretched and the pilasters (or flat columns) were not evenly distributed.
I therefore needed to delve deeper into the history of the room, starting with an examination of its first installation in the Legion in 1959–1962, and then going further back to its original context. Its earliest provenance was thought to be the Hotel d’Humieres, a grand mansion on the Left Bank of Paris, but there were inconsistencies when I checked the 18th-century plans for the room. The original plans included three windows, rather than the two surviving today, and there were discrepancies in its size, which made me think it must have come from somewhere else. Dr. Bruno Pons, who was the greatest expert on these French paneled rooms, had suggested an earlier origin for the room. Although he died tragically young, he left a trail of breadcrumbs for me to follow. Pons’s writing about paneling at Waddesdon Manor in England identified our boiserie (or paneling) as originating in the Hôtel de la Trémoille, a vanished aristocratic mansion in the rue Saint-Dominique. The Hôtel de la Trémoille was demolished in 1875 to accommodate the widening of the Boulevard Saint-Germain. The paneling was transferred shortly after to the Hôtel d’Humières in the nearby rue de Lille.
This discovery started us on a different research path that led to the Archives Nationales, Paris where we investigated the history of the Hôtel de la Trémoille and the La Trémoille family, one of the leading families of France dating back to the 11th century.
BF: Can you tell me what a salon de compagnie would have been like in 1781?
MC: We will attempt to show the Salon Doré as it would have appeared in the 1780s, that is, as a complete domestic interior rather than a museum gallery. These rooms were the main public reception rooms where aristocratic families received their guests, so they were intended to impress, thus the grand interior pilasters and arched mirrors.
The furniture in these salons de compagnie played critical roles, both architectural and functional. The armchairs and sofas were formally ranged around the walls in a rhythm according to the architecture of the paneling, with a second row of chairs arranged in the middle of the room. Elaborately carved giltwood console tables—principal architectural features—were set under the mirrors. American museums traditionally present a more romantic interpretation of French period rooms scattered with luxurious commodes and small tables that were, in fact, made for the more private rooms of the aristocratic mansion.
But, these salons were much more formal rooms—rather than lounging areas—and the Salon Doré will reflect this important distinction for the first time in an American museum.
BF: How will you be furnishing the Salon?
MC: As dictated by customs of the time, it will have the fullest complement of historical furnishing we can muster. A set of grand giltwood armchairs and a sofa will be ranged around the walls, punctuated by two giltwood consoles set under the mirrors.
The greatest innovation will be the second row of side chairs arranged in the middle of the room, which is not to be found anywhere else. Luckily we already have a wonderful set of three Sevres vases for the chimneypiece and pair of candelabra for the corners of the room, which are being restored in Paris now. Lighting will also be an important feature, so we will use the historical fixtures as much as possible, complemented with modern cans in the ceiling as is usual in museum galleries.
Stay tuned for the next installment in this blog series, when I interview associate curator Maria Santangelo about the curatorial research that went into preparing the Salon Doré for de-installation.