The Legion of Honor, the stately Beaux-Arts building & museum in San Francisco, holds an impressive collection of ancient and European art in an dazzling setting on a bluff in Lincoln Park overlooking Golden Gate Bridge. Its permanent collection includes European decorative arts and sculpture; ancient art from the Mediterranean and one of the nation's largest collection of prints and drawings.
All of this was made possible by a generous donation by Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, wife of Adolphe Spreckels, the city's wealthy sugar magnate. Inspired by the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in the city, the Legion of Honor was completed ten years later and dedicated to the soldiers from California who died in World War I. As you approach the building, Rodin's The Thinker is at center stage in the Court of Honor. Today, the collection holds over 124,000 works of art. Let's take a look at some of the Legion of Honor's holdings.
The collection of European paintings, showcased throughout the galleries, includes hundreds of masterpieces from the 14th to the early 20th centuries. The paintings represent the artistic accomplishments of Europe's leading masters, from Fra Angelico to Claude Monet.
The collection was built by the true generosity of wealthy San Franciscans. the Spreckels, for example, focused on 18th- and 19th-century French art. On the other hand, Dutch, Flemish, French, and British masters of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries were donated by the Roscoe and Margaret Oakes collection, which includes works by Gainsborough, Raeburn, Reynolds, Rubens, van Dyck, and Rembrandt
Paintings by de Hooch, El Greco, and Tiepolo were donated by the Samuel H. Kress Collection. Paintings by Degas, Géricault, and Manet were a gift from Dr T Edward and Tullah Hanley. Today, the collection continues to grow and expand through gifts and acquisitions, including more paintings by Caillebotte, Delacroix, Vuillard, Picasso, Seurat, Monet, Manet, and Reubens.
At the core of this collection at the Legion of Honor is a series of masterworks by Rodin, collected by Alma Spreckels. The Thinker has become the emblem of the Legion of Honor. Spreckels knew Rodin personally from her time spent in Paris and she purchased this and other sculptures directly from him.
From medieval times to the early 20th-century highlights in this collection include a Spanish ceiling from the 1500s; a marble bust of Medici by Cellini, also from the 1500s; a stone panel from the workshops of Florence; and sculptures by Carpeaux and Dalou.
You can also see a dazzling collection of 18th-century French furniture with a canape made for Queen Marie Antoinette. The porcelain collection masterworks feature a Meissen vase from the factory of Augustus the Strong while an extensive Bowles collection showcases the history of English porcelain. Other 20th-century standouts are a Fabergé silver tea service and table by Fabergé.
Ancient Art is an integral part of the Legion of Honor. Antiquities furnish the museum with a variety of ancient objects. The works cover a broad geographical and chronological range from ancient Mediterranean cultures — Egypt, Greece, the Aegean Islands, and Rome.
One of the earliest donations was by the Spreckels (again!) of items given to them by Elisabeth, the Queen of Greece. The collection is found in the Hall of Antiquities and in the Mummy Room in Gallery One. It also contains rare works from Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
Spend time wandering and admiring the fine collection of ancient art objects — sculptures, vessels, jewelry, and carved reliefs made of marble, stone, bronze, gold, ivory, and terracotta. Also of note is an Assyrian stone relief, carved ivories from ancient Nimrud, a Persian wall relief from Darius in Persepolis, Egyptian mummies & coffins, and a carved wood figure of Seneb from Egypt, 4,000 years ago.
Other highlights of the permanent collection include the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, with a selection of prints, drawings, and books; and a photography collection, with an emphasis on 19th and 20th century works.
Along with the permanent collections there is always a changing temporary exhibition on offer. Past exhibits have included Monet in the Early Years, Auguste Rodin, Painters of 17th-Century France, Pierre Bonnard, and The Wild West in Art.
Overall, the museum's collection provides an insight into the artistic, historical, political, and social movements spanning four millennia of history. The neoclassical museum represents a a legacy of philanthropy and civic pride.
The year was 1915 and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition has just opened. Alma Spreckels visited and fell in love with the French Pavilion, she then convinced her husband Adolph to build a pavilion just like it.
The Legion of Honor was inspired by the French pavilion that in turn was modeled after the neoclassical Palais de la Légion d'Honneur in Paris, designed by Pierre Rousseau. At the close of the 1915 Expo, the French government granted the Spreckels permission to build a replica of their pavilion. However, the outbreak of World War I (it wasn't until April 1917 that the US joined the war) delayed the construction until 1921.
Architect George Applegarth (1875-1972) integrated cutting-edge building techniques like thick hollow walls to keep the temperature constant and a heating system that cleaned the air with atomizers. It opened with much fanfare in 1924. As an aside, Appegarth studied under Bernard Maybeck (who designed the Palace of Fine Arts in san Francisco) and, like his teacher, also studied at Ecoles des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
Alma de Bretteville Spreckels (1881 – 1968). Known as Big Alma (she was 6 feet tall) and the Great Grandmother of San Francisco, her greatest lifetime accomplishment was persuading her husband Adolph to donate the Palace of the Legion of Honor to the city.
Alma Charlotte Corday le Normand de Bretteville was born in the Sunset District, the fifth of six children of Danish immigrants. The family was poor but her mother Mathilde was resourceful and opened a Danish bakery that also did laundry and gave massages.
Spreckels quit school at the age of 14 to work with her mother. She developed a love of art and studied painting at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art and earned extra money as a nude model. With poverty behind her, she became a popular It Girl around town and was intimately involved with Charlie Anderson. After their relationship soured, she successfully sued him for "personal defloweration".
Adolph Spreckels was 24 years older, but after a long courtship, they married in 1908. As he was the founder of the Spreckels Sugar Company, she called him her Sugar Daddy. She learned about art by spending a great deal of time in Paris where she met with artists, including Auguste Rodin. Alma became one of the most influential art collectors in the country and used her connections in Europe to persuade the French government to donate art to her project.
Sadly, Adolph would never see the Legion of Honor completed. He died in June 1924, just six months before the museum was completed. As for Alma Spreckels, her last major project was the San Francisco Maritime Museum, with her collection of model ships on display.
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An organization, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, oversees both the the Legion of Honor and the de Young museum.
It's easy to get to the Legion of Honor by bus. The number 18 stops directly in front of the museum. The number 1 stops at 33rd Avenue & Clement Street. From there, transfer to the 18 or walk one block west to 34th Avenue and the Legion of Honor Drive. It's about a half a mile walk to the museum.
There's free parking available by the fountain in front of the museum and also along El Camino del Mar.
The San Francisco CityPASS includes free entry to the de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor.
San Francisco Museums
• Asian Art Museum…
• de Young Museum…
• Museum of Modern Art…
• Academy of Sciences…
• The Legion of Honor…
• The Exploratorium…
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