The best part of a week spent in the Corcoran’s Mantel Room – and not a second spent with the mantel it is named after, until this, our very last day. This is typical of how we’ve come to visit museums: The paintings on the walls are “art”; almost everything else is “decor.”

As recently as when the Mantel Room was built, in 1927, that wasn’t the case. Collectors and curators came closer to being equal-opportunity aesthetes, enjoying artifacts and ornaments as much as classic works of “fine” art.

The stone mantel that gives this room its name once had pride of place in the Fifth Avenue mansion of Sen. William Andrews Clark, the Corcoran benefactor and donor of most of the works in the gallery. When Clark’s pictures shipped to the Corcoran, there would have been no thought of leaving his mantel behind; it has been where it is now since the room was built, although less noticed with every decade that passes. The Corcoran was able to give me a sizable curatorial file on various paintings in the room; on the mantel, there were only a few lines of wall text.

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