After a major restoration, the 18th-century French period room is ready to receive visitors again
By Jori Finkel. Conservation, Issue 256, April 2014
Published online: 03 April 2014
Conservators have finished restoring the Neo-Classical Salon Doré, which started life in Saint-Germain-des-Prés
Last year, visitors to the Legion of Honor in San Francisco could peer through a large window to watch the restoration of an 18th-century Neo-Classical French period room known as the Salon Doré. They could see conservators cleaning gilded surfaces or a master carver recreating missing sections of wood panelling.
Not as easy to see, however, were the many transatlantic collaborations that helped to shape the project, which culminates in the room’s reopening on 5 April. Martin Chapman, the museum’s curator of European decorative arts and sculpture, who previously worked for London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, was behind the undertaking. He travelled to Europe a dozen times on research and buying trips, drawing on a network of scholars and dealers.
When Chapman arrived at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which includes the Legion and De Young museums, in 2006, the Salon Doré was more of “a study room set up with French furniture—not true to how such a grand room was meant to function”, he says. “The quality of the room was evident, but since it was first installed, it had been moved around so many times; seven iterations, two of them here at the museum.” (It is now three at the museum.) He decided to restore the room to a state that would better reflect its original functions.
A room fit for a duchess
One of Chapman’s first priorities was determining the Salon Doré’s provenance. When the room reached California in the 1950s, it was believed to have come from the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris. But research revealed that it was originally installed in 1781 in the Hôtel de la Trémoille on the rue Saint-Dominique in the city’s Saint-Germain-des-Prés area, where it was a salon de compagnie or formal receiving room for the duchess of Trémoille. A century later, when the building was demolished to make way for Haussmann’s grand boulevards, the room was moved to the Hôtel d’Humières. From there, it travelled to New York, arriving in the Upper East Side mansion of the banker and art patron Otto Kahn and then the showroom of the Duveen Brothers art dealership, before making its journey further west.
A key moment in the room’s restoration came in 2012, when Xavier Bonnet, a French upholsterer and PhD candidate at the University of Paris, found the original inventory in the French capital’s Archives Nationales. “We were quite far into our work and were planning on cream walls and crimson upholstery, based on other duchal salons in Paris,” Chapman says. “Then we learned from the inventory that the walls were grey—my idea of hell—and the upholstery was blue and white.”
To determine the particular shade of blue, Chapman and Bonnet visited the Musées des Tissus et des Arts Décoratifs in Lyon to look at hues used the 1780s. They chose a medium blue with a hint of teal, and Bonnet used the colour when he made the curtains and the upholstery for the chairs.
Most of the pieces used in the re-creation of the salon are from the Legion of Honor’s collection, including the furniture, a chandelier and three Sèvres vases that have been placed on the mantelpiece. Other objects came from Parisian antiques dealers, including Pierre-Olivier Chanel, who gave a large mirror; the museum also bought a console from Galerie Kraemer and six chairs from Galerie J. Kugel. The French dealer Benjamin Steinitz advised on lighting and oversaw the Paris-based restoration work, including the creation of extra armchairs to complete the set. He also donated parquet floors.
Chapman says the decision to mix newer objects with period pieces fits the ethos of the project, which emphasises the architectural integrity of the room, with its extensive boiserie or wood panelling. “Period rooms have been a part of American museum culture since the early 20th century, but most of those rooms are backdrops for showing off the furniture.” This is the opposite, he says. “Our priority was getting furniture to fit into the agenda of the boiserie.”