The Corcoran Gallery’s Mantle Room has been configured in the Salon style of 18th-century Paris, with some of the museum’s best old European paintings crowding all the way up the walls. (Bill O’leary)

Museums are time machines. They let us look at all the pieces of the past they preserve. Sometimes, they also let us look at vintage looking.

Last year, when the Corcoran Gallery of Art rearranged its lovely little permanent collection, a few galleries were rehung to mimic how art was looked at for most of the last half-millennium. Many Corcoran works are now displayed “Salon-style,” with pictures of every size and style, on every subject, stacked up to the ceiling. It doesn’t make it easy to examine every one of them, the way we’re used to doing in books and slide talks and special exhibitions. But a Salon hang does produce an interesting tussle among the works themselves, as they vie for our attention – the same struggle they would have had when they were first made and collected.

A Salon hang also changes the way we negotiate the art: It turns a modern type-A viewer into a leisurely grazer. Looking at this throng of paintings, the ease and poise of an aristocratic collector, at home among his treasures, replaces the eager-beaver art historian in you, fighting for A grades.

If nothing else, a Salon hang also saves shoe leather. You can sit on the bench in a single gallery and browse among dozens of works.


Blake Gopnik
Washington Post