I must confess that of the museums in San Francisco, the Legion of Honor is my favourite. As I’ve been going to “the City” my entire life for art exhibitions, that’s saying something. This is partly sentimental — I consider the Legion to be one of the early influences on my becoming a material culturist and dress historian, long before I knew those careers existed — and partially a sheer love for the unique nature of the museum, itself. Architecturally modelled on the Hôtel de Salm in Paris, the Legion lends itself to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco‘s (FAMSF) eighteenth-century art and material culture collections. Among these are the rooms such as the recently restored Salon Dore.
I first learned of the renovation of the Salon Dore by being startled at its and the other eighteenth-century rooms’ being closed off from the public while on a visit to see FAMSF’s Royal Treasures from the Louvre in 2013. The Salon Dore seemed like the perfect way to end the visit. Except that the Salon was being restored in a huge, eighteen-month long project. As I said, the Salon, along with other aspects of the Legion influenced me greatly in my career, so I eagerly anticipated the reopening this year.
According to the FAMSF site discussing the details of the renovation and encouraging visiting, Le Salon Dore is one of the finest surviving examples of French Neoclassical interior architecture in the United States. I can only agree. What’s more, the restoration has given the salon back the intimacy it had previously lost, while still retaining that subdued elegance that first gave the world the concept of “good taste”.
This is not a criticism of the Salon as I first knew it. In 1995, when it was installed at the Legion, the Fine Arts Museums took the bold step of using it as much to display other object of material culture — glassware, etc. — in the spaces between the gilded mouldings we now see as blank wall. This particular display taught me as a young pre-teen the context of objects I might otherwise have misunderstood. However, there are shifts in attitude about display as much in the museum world as there are everywhere else. The more we learn, the more technology advances, all influence how we communicate with our audiences; so while the Salon was almost avant garde in its educational and display in 1995, those same nuances had become as tarnished as some of the eighteenth-century mirrors by 2013.
The restoration was extensive and amazingly well-done. The lighting has been dimmed in the room to preserve that restoration work for as long as possible, and the room positively gleams. It is this lower lighting — mimicking candlelight — that restores the intimacy and eighteenth-century ambiance to the room. The gilding and other objects are meticulously preserved and restored, but of course what caught my attention was the work on the textiles which is almost mind-boggling. I am unsure whether it is the conservationists’ work, or my own increased education as to the beauty of Lyon silk furnishings, or a combination thereof, that made the deep impression on me that it did. I couldn’t remember the colour of the furnishings in the Salon Dore during the restoration despite having visited it every time I was at the Legion since its arrival, now I don’t know how I missed the beautiful sky-blue silks with cream and gold patterning.
The conservation and restoration is not merely to the artwork, but in their presentation. The set up genuinely suggests that at any moment you might witness an eighteenth-century gathering, though that might be influenced by my having met a costuming group in full sacque and robe à la française gowns in the galleries recently. The fault I often found with the Salon and the other rooms is that there was not enough information about them posted within the museum. There would be the tombstone informing me that this was the Salon Dore from the Hôtel de la Trémoille, but nothing much more. This is no doubt due to pre-teen laziness, the internet not being quite what it is now in 1995, and the museum not wanting to damage the Salon itself with placards when it didn’t have the space. The Salon is a room — giving the museum limited space to work with when labelling items displayed since eighteenth-century rooms are not large and they are, as can be seen, rather ornate.
This is where the technological advances come in handy. Thanks to mounted tablets, there is interactive information available to the public where before the museum was limited to what they could transcribe on limited podium tombstones a decade previously. Entire paragraphs about the room, its creation, its restoration, everything are available at your fingertips. FAMSF has never been shy of technology, embracing it in its presentation of the Bulgari exhibition last year (as I discussed in my review), but I’ve never seen what direction they were intending to go in with with permanent displays. This is all complimented by an extensive, well-researched, well-written catalogue on the Salon and the Salon alone. So extensive I’ve not yet been able to give it the complete attention it deserves (lots and lots of fine print — this is what I will be reading on my next vacation, I assure you). Having done my master’s internship working with a private collection of eighteenth-century architectural drawings, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francsico have done a meticulous job of presenting the history and beauty of the Salon.
One debate regarding museum displays that seemed to trouble my master’s instructors was how do you keep a permanent collection on display interesting to the public? I don’t think there is a single answer to that question since each institution and thus each public is different, but with the Salon Dore and the rotation of various sixteenth- through twentieth-century paintings and material culture objects, the Legion of Honor has absolutely figured out its balance. I was able to visit the very portraits by Reynolds and Vigée Le Brun that had captivated me as a child, while seeing new pieces to fall in love with, and being dazzeled by the newly restored Salon Dore.
And they used the images of the restored textile designs as the end papers in the catalogue, in addition to extensive essays on those same textiles. What more could a girl in love with the late eighteenth-century ask for?
The Salon Dore is open to the public every day that the Legion of Honor is open. The catalogue on the Salon’s history and restoration is available in museum shops, and online.
As always, please feel free to share your thoughts and insights in the comments. And if you have any dress or textile history or material culture events happening in your institution or know of any that you would like to be discussed here on Worn Through feel free to email me!