A Tour Through the Palace of Fine Arts


I spent the evening last scanning some snapshots taken at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition. Several of these are photos of the Palace of Fine Arts, a building, now reconstructed, that houses a science-oriented museum called the Exploratorium. So I set out to uncover just what was in each gallery.

Reading the following passage, it’s no wonder while most exhibition buildings were demolished, San Francisco fell in love with the Palace of Fine Arts and worked to rebuild the place in the 1960s.

Picture a colonnade over a thousand feet in length sweeping majestically around the tree-lined marge of a gleaming lagoon, with, behind the colonnade, a vast, crescent-shaped structure containing a hundred or more separate rooms, and you have some idea of the Palace of Fine Arts at the Panama-Pacific Exposition. Viewed from the opposite side of the lagoon, the rotunda fronting the encircling columns recalled, in its deeply romantic suggestion, Böcklin’s Island of the Dead. The sense of antiquity was there, the silence, the remoteness from the world of actuality, and the summons to a realm where one surrenders to the magic of a mysterious, indefinable beauty. Such was the appeal exercised by this memorable fusion of elements traditional, natural, and frankly inspirational.

As beautiful as the building is today, we can only wonder what it was like filled with art.

Of the deceased painters, separate rooms or walls were allotted to Whistler, Edwin A. Abbey, Winslow Homer, John La Farge, Theodore Robinson, John H. Twachtman and others, while prominent among the living thus to be honoured were Frank Duveneck, Gari Melchers, William M. Chase, John S. Sargent, J. Alden Weir, Edmund C. Tarbell, Childe Hassam, and Edward W. Redfield.

It seems that Impressionism at the fair was favored over Barbizon. On the California Painter William Keith is commented “It seems peculiar that a country famed for its sunshine should produce men like Keith, Mathews and McComas, who surely do reflect a rather somber atmosphere, in a type of work which must be called tonal and arbitrary rather than naturalistic.”

“We are casting off our congenital conservatism and dependence. The Fontainebleau-Barbizon tradition which so long darkened and sentimentalized native landscape, and the aesthetic anaemia that emanated from the delicate organism of Whistler, have been succeeded by fresher, more invigorating tendencies.”

The author of these passages, Eugen Neuhaus, does not seem to be generally impressed with the American painting at the exhibition. He calls it “top-down” and lacking individualism. He’s even harder on specific artists, like La Farge “who ranks at best as a studious, eclectic amateur,” Neuhas says. It reminds me of comments in a book I am reading by Kenyon Cox who called Stuart, Copley and West second-rate English portrait painters. These are all sentiments with which I do not agree. The value, however lies in the fact that we can’t accurately judge art from our own age and time will change how art of our day is viewed just as surely. In any case the document provides a relatively detailed, if opinionated, account of ehat it was like to walk through these galleries. LINK

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