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de Young Museum

December 1, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments


Four weekends ago, we headed down to San Francisco for the wedding of our friends’ daughter Hannah. Years back, I had occasion to be in the Bay Area frequently, whether in San Francisco itself, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, the Peninsula. There was always some reason, from conferences to friend and family visits to stays at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute. Yet somehow a dozen years had elapsed since our last time there.

That was a memorable trip. The centerpiece was a game at the then-new Giants baseball stadium. It was the weekend that straddled June and July in 2001. Barry Bonds was on his way to a record 73 home runs. Friday night we watched the end of the game on TV as he ran into the wall and injured himself. He would not be playing Saturday. Darn. This rookie phenom from the Cardinals was playing though. Pujols. Albert Pujols. And Bonds came in after all to pinch hit in the 9th inning. All in all, a great game. Except for the sun. We forgot sunscreen and I got pretty well burned.

But we weren’t there just for baseball. We headed to Golden Gate Park on Sunday. Alas, I had missed the news that the de Young Museum had closed at the beginning of the year and would remain closed for years to come.

In 1989 the de Young suffered significant structural damage as a result of the Loma Prieta earthquake. The Fine Arts Museums’ board of trustees completed a project that braced the museum as a temporary measure until a long-term solution could be implemented. For the next several years, the board actively sought solutions to the de Young’s structural jeopardy and solicited feedback from throughout the community, conducting numerous visitor surveys and public workshops.

With extensive public input, the board initiated a process to plan and build a privately financed institution as a philanthropic gift to the city, in the tradition of M. H. de Young. An open architectural selection process took place from 1998 to 1999. The board endorsed a museum concept plan in October 1999, and a successful multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign was initiated under the leadership of board president Diane B. Wilsey.

The resulting design by the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron weaves the museum into the natural environment of the park. It also provides open and light-filled spaces that facilitate and enhance the art-viewing experience. Historic elements from the former de Young, such as the sphinxes, the original palm trees, and the Pool of Enchantment, have been retained or reconstructed at the new museum. The former de Young Museum structure closed to the public on December 31, 2000. The new de Young opened on October 15, 2005.

Twelve years later, seeing the de Young was my top priority. Whatever else we did in our free time before the wedding events, we would see the de Young. And so we did.

Gail and I decided to focus on their permanent collection of American paintings, along with some of the American decorative art interspersed through the galleries.

The de Young’s American Art Department is home to one of the finest survey collections of American paintings in the United States. Strengthened by the acquisition of the Rockefeller Collection of American Art, the de Young’s holdings include more than 1000 paintings ranging from 1670 to the present day.

While essentially chronological, the installation of American art at the de Young juxtaposes works from different cultures and time periods to emphasize the historical connections between works in the collection, and includes galleries devoted to art in the following areas: Native American and Spanish Colonial; Anglo-Colonial; Federal and Neoclassical; Victorian genre and realism; trompe l’oeil still life; the Hudson River School, Barbizon and Tonalism; Impressionism and the Ashcan School; Arts and Crafts; Modernism; Social Realism and American Scene; Surrealism and Abstraction; Beat, Pop and Figurative; and contemporary. Also featured are important California collections with national significance, including examples of Spanish colonial, Arts and Crafts, Bay Area Figurative, and Assemblage art.

Joel and Jessica took off in their own direction, joining us for lunch in the de Young Café before splitting up again.

Here are a few highlights, courtesy of my iPhone.

First, a painting by Joshua Johnson, the earliest known African-American artist, a freed slave in Baltimore. The image is that of the daughter of a wealthy Baltimore merchant. (This and other descriptions are from the signage in the museum.)

Letitia Grace McCurdy, ca. 1800-1802, Joshua Johnson

Letitia Grace McCurdy, ca. 1800-1802, Joshua Johnson

This next one is blurry. Sorry. It’s by Horace Pippin, another African-American artist, whose grandmother saw John Brown being led to his hanging in 1859. Pippin emphasizes Brown as a Christ-like martyr, with the jury and prosecutor/persecutor recalling the twelve apostles and Judas.

The Trial of John Brown, 1942, Horace Pippin

The Trial of John Brown, 1942, Horace Pippin

Next, one of several John Frederick Peto paintings that need to be seen in person for a proper sense of texture.

The Cup We All Race 4, ca. 1900, John Frederick Peto

The Cup We All Race 4, ca. 1900, John Frederick Peto

Near the Peto is this nearly contemporaneous painting by John Haberle.

The Slate: Memoranda, ca. 1895, John Haberle

The Slate: Memoranda, ca. 1895, John Haberle

Here’s a wonderful Sargent.

La verre de porto (A Dinner Table at Night), 1884, John Singer Sargent

La verre de porto (A Dinner Table at Night), 1884, John Singer Sargent

How about this wonderful Stickley sideboard? I could find a spot for it in our house.

Leopold and John George Stickley, sideboard, 1910

Leopold and John George Stickley, sideboard, 1910

I can’t properly capture this Grant Wood, inspired by Wood’s childhood memories of the annual threshing ritual on his family’s Iowa farm. The accompanying sign suggests that the bisected farmhouse recalls early Renaissance paintings, especially those depicting the Last Supper. Wood thereby endows the farmers with the dignity of biblical disciples partaking of a sacred meal.

Dinner for Threshers, Grant Wood, 1934

Dinner for Threshers, Grant Wood, 1934

Here’s a detail.


I’ll end with a painting by William Zorach, who became a friend of my parents late in his life. I remember his visits to our house.

Provincetown Madonna, ca. 1916, William Zorach

Provincetown Madonna, ca. 1916, William Zorach

After viewing the art, we met up and walked to the elevator to go up the tower that contains museum offices and, at its top, a public observation floor. The shot I took of the tower as we left is at the start of this post. Here is the view north toward Marin County.


We left so much unexplored. There’s always next time, which I hope isn’t another dozen years away.

Categories: Art, Museums, Travel
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