How Gold Went From Godly to Gaudy

For centuries, the metal was a respected symbol of royalty and immortality. In more recent history it has come to be associated with dictators, pop stars, and a lack of refinement.

A painting from 1653 of Louis XIV of France, in costume as the sun God, Apollo, for a ballet performance of La Nuit. (Bibliothèque National de France)

For a would-be populist hero, the optics were jarring. During his recent 60 Minutes interview, Donald Trump perched on a throne-like gilded Louis XV chair—just one of the many gold-plated objects the president-elect surrounds himself with, from his plane to his apocryphal toilet. Indeed, critics and designers alike have wondered if he will turn the White House into the Gold House—a replica of one of his defunct casinos or his Trump Tower penthouse.

Gold has always been the color of absolute power and those who aspire to it, as a sumptuous new exhibition at The Frick Collection illustrates. Pierre Gouthière: Virtuoso Gilder at the French Court (on view until February 19) has been in the works for five years, though the curator Charlotte Vignon told me that, as of the November 8 election, “the timing is right” to reexamine the aesthetics and politics of gold décor. As a symbol of wealth, power, and eternity, gold inspired centuries of bloody wars and dangerous mining endeavors. But in more recent history, its meaning has become more complex: Its association with dictators, celebrities, and artists has also transformed it into a sign of excess, corruption, and cultural domination.

A detail from a marble and gilt bronze side table (Michael Bodycomb)

Because of its high cost and its unearthly beauty, gold has always had a strong association with royalty. In ancient Egypt, gold was reserved for deities and Pharaohs, who were considered to be gods among men. The biblical Book of Kings describes how “all the household articles in the palace” of King Solomon were pure gold. The “household” part is key: Any ruler can have a gold crown, but performing quotidian tasks such as eating, sleeping, sitting, and, especially, defecating on gold takes luxury to a whole new level.

The modern history of gold décor begins with King Louis XIV, who revived the ancient practice of gilding, or applying a thin gold veneer to objects. In addition to beautifying, gilding protects against corrosion, and, in some cases, has even enabled objects to pass for solid gold. But unlike pure gold or delicate gilt plaster or wood, gilt metals—particular bronzes—are durable materials, making them suitable for objects that need to function as well as shine, like clocks. Gold and gilding were crucial to enhancing Louis’s image as the self-professed Sun King—an Apollo bringing light to an unenlightened world.

Upon assuming absolute power in 1661, Louis began transforming a humble brick hunting lodge in the swamps of Versailles into the greatest palace in Europe. To fill its 700 rooms, he appointed a furniture czar, explaining that “there is nothing that indicates more clearly the magnificence of great princes than their superb palaces and their precious furniture.” Versailles became a showplace for the French furniture industry’s finest examples of gilded wood and bronze. Far from being cold and static, their gleaming surfaces danced in candlelight and firelight, maximizing available illumination with priceless mercury-backed mirrors and rock-crystal chandeliers, an effect that the art historian Mimi Hellman called “the aesthetics of the glint” in the book Paris: Life and Luxury in the 18th Century.

It was a look so unique, so self-aggrandizing, that it granted the king a kind of material immortality. “You haven’t seen anything if you haven’t seen the pomp of Versailles,” the Vicomte de Chateaubriand remarked in his memoirs after a visit to the palace in the 1780s. “Louis XIV is still there.” Commoners, too, sought to distinguish themselves in the eyes of posterity by collecting gilt bronzes, as the 18th-century journalist Louis-Sébastien Mercier wryly observed in his Tableau de Paris: “Every man may tell himself, during his lifetime: These bronzes and pictures which have cost me so much, and which I hide from curious eyes, will serve as evidence, after my death, for judgment of my tastes.”

If Louis XIV promoted the art of gilding, Pierre Gouthière perfected it in the mid-18th century. According to legend, his gilt bronzes imitated gold so perfectly that Marie-Antoinette herself was fooled. Scholars are still debating whether these gold-plated objects were intended to deceive, or considered prestigious in their own right. Vignon argued that what gilt bronze lacked in intrinsic value it made up for in skilled and costly labor. Sculpting models, which were then cast, chased, gilded, and polished, was a time-consuming and technically challenging process. “At that time, these objects were more than just trappings of power,” Vignon told me. “They were cutting edge, they were original, they were interesting—like the latest Apple phone.”

In 1767, Gouthière was appointed gilder to King Louis XV. His work was so heavily in demand that he managed to extract commissions from both of the rival factions at court, united respectively around the king’s mistress, Madame Du Barry, and his granddaughter-in-law, Marie-Antoinette. The Frick exhibition reunites a monogrammed gilt bronze window knob that Gouthière made for the Du Barry’s Salon en Cul-de-Four at Louveciennes with Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s series The Progress of Love, painted for the same room. But, as Vignon pointed out, “when the painter Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun wrote about her visit to Louveciennes 20 years later, it wasn’t the paintings she remembered; it was the chimneypieces and the gold locks on the doors.” That is, objects crafted by Gouthière.

When did gold become gaudy? The work of Gouthière and his contemporaries was considered modern and tasteful, not garish and over-the-top. “When you read the descriptions of Gouthière’s mounts in catalogues of the time, they talked about taste and elegance,” Vignon told me, adding that these merchants were not just trying to justify Gouthière’s high prices, but also celebrating his mastery of his craft. Louis XVI acquired several examples of Gouthière’s work for the national art collection, in recognition of their lasting value. He could not have known that the rich culture of craftsmanship and patronage that produced them was about to disappear forever.

Knob for a French window (Th. Hennocque)

Rather than going out of style, the taste for all that glitters became frozen in time with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. “[Gold] became a cliché, very soon after the Revolution,” Vignon said. “These objects became symbolic of a time of absolute power and an elitist society—so much so that it ended in a bloody revolution. It makes sense that people looking for absolute power would continue to associate themselves with that kind of interior.”

Indeed, the gilded “Louis Style” became part of the decorative vocabulary of 19th-century imperialism and 20th-century despotism, as regimes of questionable legitimacy sought to bolster their cultural and political authority through elaborate visual propaganda. (In 2011, The Telegraph dubbed the look “Dictator Chic.”) Saddam Hussein built dozens of grandiose palaces of marble, crystal, and gold leaf, which Vanity Fair cheekily compared to Trump’s similarly decorated properties. People have been quick to point out that Muammar Gaddafi, too, shared Trump’s taste in gilded chairs. But it’s not just dictators and despots who adhere to the gold standard; even the Elysée Palace, the official residence of the President of the French Republic, is filled with 18th-century gilded furniture today. “It seems to be a huge paradox about the representation of power,” said Vignon, who was born in Paris. “French power is still expressed in the language of ancien régime!”

In popular culture, entertainers like Elvis “The King” Presley and Liberace, the “King of Bling,” used the power of gold to project an air of royalty, untouchable and otherworldly. Elvis’s 141 gold records paled beside his 24-karat gold-plated piano, his gold-trimmed Cadillac, and his $10,000 gold lamé suit. Liberace, too, had a gold disco ball of a suit to match his glittery gold Bradley. And the artist Jeff Koons chose rococo-style gilded porcelain as the medium for his deliberately kitschy life-sized statue of Michael Jackson, the “King of Pop,” and his chimp, Bubbles. Fittingly, the piece was displayed in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles in 2008.

The more-is-more vibe of the 1980s—when Trump Tower was built—brought a fresh revival of the ornate 18th-century style, epitomized in fashion by designers like Christian Lacroix, John Galliano, and Vivienne Westwood and in interiors by Angelo Donghia, Trump’s decorator. It’s an aesthetic Trump has clung to in his homes and hotels, even as fashion has moved on to minimalism and industrialism and beyond. “I think Trump is using objects like that to express power, but without taste and refinement,” Vignon said. In the 18th century, she added, gold furnishings “were not only luxury objects. They were also an expression of cutting-edge craftsmanship. When it is not new and it is only an expression of power, it’s not interesting.”

A vase (Joseph Godla)

Of course, tackiness is in the eye of the beholder; one man’s Versailles is another man’s Graceland. But men (and women) who would be the Sun King should remember the cautionary tale of another king, the mythical Midas who greedily wished that everything he touched would turn to gold. Trump, for his part, is aware of the story: His father once bragged about his son that “everything he touches turns to gold,” and Trump has made that boast his brand, even titling one of his books The Midas Touch.

Of course, the fictional King Midas came to realize that his golden gift was actually a curse. (Elvis came to a similar conclusion about his beloved gold Cadillac, putting it into storage because it was so impractical to drive.) In Ovid’s version of the story, Midas begs the gods to take back his power, only to get saddled with a pair of ass’s ears instead. In Aristotle’s version, Midas dies of starvation. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s telling, Midas accidentally turns his beloved daughter into a gold statue. But it was Gouthière, the man with the Midas touch, who gave the legend its most chilling twist; he once designed a vase with handles fashioned from the golden visage of Midas himself.