The Salon Doré

I feel like I’ve been talking about my D.C. trip for weeks, but I would certainly be remiss if I didn’t post about the Salon Doré. One of the major highlights at The Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Salon Doré (or gilded room) is a magnificent, 18th century room – and a fantastic example of the neoclassicism that was so popular in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Hôtel de Clermont, Paris

present-day view

From its origins as the salon de compagnie (room for receiving guests) in a lavish Parisian residence known as the hôtel de Clermont, to its installation in the extravagant Fifth Avenue mansion of Senator William Andrews Clark, and finally to its current museum home in Washington, D.C. – the Salon Doré is about as well traveled as a room could be.

The Hôtel de Clermont, Paris

Copy of The Salon Doré, present-day view

In 1768, the comte d’Orsay purchased the hôtel de Clermont, and immediately commissioned famed architect Jean Chalgrin (designer of the Arc de Triomphe) to complete a renovation. Construction of the Salon Doré was finished in late 1770, just in time for the comte’s wedding. Its early neoclassical style marked a return to the order of classical antiquity – with corinthian pilasters, rich cornices, and in general, symmetry and a formal clarity.

Left – The long demolished Clark mansion (77th street and Fifth Avenue)

Right – The Salon Doré (as it appeared in Clark’s mansion)

Decoratively the Salon Doré is marked by gilt boiserie (intricately carved wood paneling) including floral garlands, interlacing ribbons, and beautiful trophy panels. Classical medallions with motifs of putti (cupids) are placed above the various sets of doors, and an ornate cornice borders the rather elaborate ceiling mural – an allegorical depiction of the arts and the four seasons.

Gilt Trophy Panels (from left to right)

Arts & Sciences, Theatre, Sports, and Music

Built for the occasion of the wedding, the decor of the room was meant to be a symbol of marital unity, and of military virtue – hence the floral garlands, putti, and trophy panels depicting motifs such as love and victory. As part of the decoration, certain chairs and console tables were specifically designed to be placed against the walls. This type of architectural furniture was considered to be an extension of the decorative paneling, and was not meant for use.

The Salon Doré (shortly after its installation at The Corcoran Gallery)

National Geographic, 1931

Other furniture was designed to be used, and arranged within the space – including console tables, a rolltop desk, a card table, a sofa, six fauteuils (armchairs), eight chaises à la reine (flat-back chairs), and four bergères (upholstered armchairs). These chairs were simpler than the architectural ones, in that their frames were uncarved – however, as a sign of wealth, gilding was added.

The Salon Doré

The Corcoran Gallery, 1980s

More than a century later, an American millionaire, Senator William Andrews Clark, purchased the Salon Doré, and had it installed in his nine-story Fifth Avenue manse, that in 1908, the New York Times called “New York’s Most Expensive Private Mansion”. Having traveled extensively to Europe, Senator Clark grew particularly fond of France, and wanted the Fifth Avenue home that he was constructing to be a “French palace”. Because the square room was reconfigured to fit a rectangular space, the existing elements had to be rearranged, and new elements added – including windows, pilasters, and two additional trophy panels (Theatre and Sports).

Left – The Salon Doré pre-restoration

Right – The Salon Doré post-restoration

In addition a new cornice and capitals were made from plaster – as the originals had remained in Paris, along with the original painted ceiling. For reasons unknown, Clark purchased a ceiling (painted on canvas) from an adjacent dining room of the hôtel de Clermont, and had it installed in the salon. As an aside, some may recognize the Clark name from last summer when his 104 year old daughter, Huguette Clark, made international news for her vast fortune, and extremely reclusive ways.

Left – The Salon Doré pre-restoration

Right – The Salon Doré post-restoration

Upon his death in 1925, the Senator’s vast collection of art, including the Salon Doré, was bequeathed to the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Clark’s will had named the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art as primary benefactor – however board members of the museum passed on the bequest, feeling that they were unable to accommodate certain restrictions and stipulations. Three years later, the Clark wing of the Corcoran opened to the public.

The Salon Doré, West Wall

The Corcoran Gallery, April 2011

Over the next seventy of so years, the condition of the room began to deteriorate – due to a a lack of climate control, several misguided restoration attempts, and the fact that the windows were often left open, enabling dirt and other pollutants into the space. From 1989 to 1993, the Corcoran undertook a major renovation of the Salon Doré. Using 18th century techniques, and materials ranging from garlic to more than 30,000 sheets of gold leaf, a team of French artisans was able to remove more than two centuries of wear and tear, breathing new life into the lavish, neoclassical drawing room.

The Salon Doré, North Wall

The Corcoran Gallery, April 2011

Interestingly enough, the 19th century owners of the hôtel de Clermont, the Duchâtel family, went to considerable lengths (and expense) to have replicas of the Salon Doré paneling cast in plaster, and reinstalled in the room. It is unclear as to what may have motivated the sale of the originals, as the family was more than economically secure. Perhaps the initial intent was to sell the copies as well.

The Salon Doré, North Wall (detail)

The Corcoran Gallery, April 2011

Research has shown that while it was clear that the original cornice and ceiling mural remained in Paris, other minor elements also remained in place at the hôtel de Clermont – with plaster copies being sent to the United States. For instance, the medallions above the doors were originally carved from wood – but the Corcoran medallions are plaster replicas.

The Salon Doré, West Wall (detail)

The Corcoran Gallery, April 2011

These days, the original hôtel de Clermont room functions as office space – as the residence is now owned by the government, housing offices for the French Parliament. Talk about a fancy cubicle! For those who are stateside, and have the opportunity to visit D.C., I highly recommend checking out the Salon Doré (and the Corcoran Gallery, in general) – it’s such a fantastic example of the ostentatious luxury that once categorized interior decoration!

The Salon Doré, South Wall (Theatre Trophy Panel)

The Corcoran Gallery, April 2011


Photos via The Corcoran Gallery of Art and by John Cicero for John About Town