Ma cherie, the soiree is in the salon -- the Salon Dore at San Francisco's Legion of Honor, where a steady stream of the bourgeoisie arrives daily, eager to view a room with a past. It's a present-day tribute to precise, painstaking historical conservation as well.
Yes, it's just a room off the museum's Rodin gallery. But qu'une room, mes amis! Whoops, pardonnez-moi, my butchered high-school francais has been invigorated by the Salon's reopening a couple of weeks ago. The exhibit had been closed for about a year and a half for an exhaustive restoration project to "re" just about everything -- reorienting the room's very footprint from a rectangular shape to a 26-foot square, regilding the dove-gray boiserie (that's French for wooden wall panels) with whisper-thin 23.75-karat gold leaf, reupholstering the period chaises (chairs, en francais) in a fine blue silk -- all to bring the salon as close to its 1781 Parisian origins as possible.
Indeed, in the years leading up to the French Revolution, this was a space for the elite to meet and greet, designed during the reign of Louis XVI as the main salon de compagnie (reception room) in the Hotel de La Tremoille. This room in the grand private mansion on the rue Saint-Dominique in Paris was where the duchesse de La Tremoille would formally welcome guests for conversation, no doubt as a prelude to a lavish party, where cake of some sort might be consumed by those blissfully unaware their noble necks would eventually be on the line.
Considered one of the finest examples of French Neoclassical interior architecture anywhere, the Legion's Salon Dore revels in its glittering "gilty" pleasures with a polished rock-crystal chandelier and towering, gilded Corinthian pilasters that frame arched mirrors.
"Stand in the middle of this rear mirror," coaxes enthusiastic docent Joan Kung-Levy. "That's where you get the full infinity effect."
She's right. The soft simulated candlelight reflects on and on and on in the murky mercury-backed mirrors, distant images blurring in dreamlike fashion -- is that me in, oh, maybe the 233rd iteration? In a balloon of silk and a cloud of white wig?
Mai oui, I remember the Salon well. Likely not so much from my past-aristocratic-life imaginations, but from visiting the exhibit over the years. It was donated to the museum in 1959, but it never looked quite like this.
That's because recent research, spearheaded by Martin Chapman, the Legion's curator in charge of European decorative arts and sculpture, led conservators to discover discrepancies in how the room had been altered during the centuries. After all, the walls had been moved a total of seven times -- to another French mansion, then sold to an American banker, then sold to Manhattan art dealers and eventually ending up in the Legion's permanent collection, where it was displaced a couple of times for various work on the building.
So Chapman had the salon de-installed, deconstructed and displayed behind glass in a public viewing room while the restoration work went on. I'd visited during that transition period, my nose practically pressed to the workroom windows, fascinated by the delicate process as a team of people in lab coats and gloves -- architects, gilders, carvers and historical reupholsterers (who knew there were historical reupholsterers?) wielded tiny paint brushes and tweezers and chisels over the priceless panels.
And their work paid off. The sparkling salon is now ready to receive fawning guests once more -- many, many guests, encircling docent Levy on this day as though she were the duchesse de La Tremoille herself. I almost felt sorry for the darker, duller Louis XV room a couple of galleries away. No one gave it a second glance. The soiree was in the salon.
Follow Angela Hill at Twitter.com/giveemhill.