The Museums of San Diego’s Balboa Park, Part 1

San Diego Museum of ArtThere are many other attractions in San Diego to lure visitors other than art. That’s particularly true this time of year. One of those attractions is palm tree-filled Balboa Park, which happens to be home to a number of museums, including two art museums.

The first stop was the San Diego Museum of Art. This museum is located in one of the buildings in the park constructed for the 1915 Panama-California Exhibition. The museum building was designed by architects William Templeton Johnson and Robert W. Snyder in a plateresque style to harmonize with existing structures from the exposition . The dominant feature of the façade is a heavily ornamented door inspired by a doorway at the University of Salamanca. The Cathedral of Valladolid also influenced the museum’s exterior design, and the architects derived interior motifs from the Santa Cruz Hospital of Toledo, Spain.

As might be expected, the museum’s collection strengths are in works my Spanish artists including El Greco and De Goya. The entire second floor is dedicated to the European collection.

Works by Thomas Eakins and Robert Henri

For many visitors the American collection in a corner of the first floor might seem a provincial footnote. Yet works by Henry Inman, Eastman Johnson, Mary Cassatt, Robert Henri, George Inness and Thomas Eakins are assembled into a collection that can stand on its own.

Harvest Spirit by Donal Hord
Harvest Spirit by Donal Hord

Entering the galleries you are at first presented with the latest works, so if you’re one of those who likes to look at things chronologically, it might be best to walk into the second room and work your way out. The painting immediately to your right as you enter the second room is a portrait of a Mr. Paff by Henry Inman. As you will see from the work, Inman was a particularly skilled portrait painter and this is a particularly fine example of his work.

To the left is a work by Eastman Johnson that makes you wonder exactly where the horizon is. It would appear the second layer from the bottom represents waves, but then a sail boat is left hovering above. The lack of a graphic separation between water and sky likely makes other viewers stand for a moment and wonder.

EakinsOn of the best paintings in the collection is Elizabeth Crowell with a Dog painted by Thomas Eakins. It’s one of two works by the controversial Philadelphia artist, the other a full-sized figure displayed next to a work by Robert Henri, also trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He’s also one of the few trained by Eakins of his successors who can match Eakins’ skill and talent.

In the center of the larger interior room is a large sculpture in Rosewood titled Harvest Spirit by Donal Hord of an American Indian. Not previously aware of Hord’s work, exposure to it was previous in his sculpture Guardian of the Waters outside the San Diego Municipal Building.

The full investigation of the two American galleries was padded with an insightful docent tour of some lithograph’s by Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa, otherwise known as Toulouse Lautrec. In 1987 the Baldwin M. Baldwin Foundation made a gift to The San Diego Museum of Art of nearly 100 works by Toulouse-Lautrec. Since then the Museum has circulated this collection as well as other pieces by this artist in the Museum’s permanent collection widely throughout the United States. It’s the first time in 20 years they have been shown at the museum. The opportunity to see these works comes to a close December 31.

Part 2 will cover the European collections at SDMA and the collections at the Timken Museum.

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