For at least four years, the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco has been on our ‘places to go’ list. We had always assumed we would pay a visit sometime when we had a visitor in town who was also interested but, finally, this year over the Thanksgiving holiday, we decided to keep the adventure all to ourselves and spend the day exploring all that the destination had to offer.
From the start, we knew the Palace of the Legion of Honor was a lovely Beaux-Arts building with Rodin’s Thinker sitting in the courtyard out front. We knew it was a small version of the original bearing the same name in Paris, France. Sitting up on top of a hill alongside a golf course in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park, its location offers one of my favorite views from the Pacific Ocean side of the Golden Gate Bridge with redwoods in the foreground and the Marin headlands behind. We had been to the location several times before to show visitors the view but had never had the time or the interested visitor who wanted to go inside.
The Palace of the Legion of Honor houses an impressive collection of 4,000 years of ancient and European art and, on the day that we went, was also showing two special exhibits – one displaying former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s famous pin collection and another presenting the works of the Le Nain brothers from 17th century France.
The building was constructed to commemorate soldiers from California who died in World War I and, as part of the construction planning, it was designed to house a pipe organ with all the pipes hidden in its walls. The ‘ceilings’ in the rooms surrounding the organ are actually fabric panels painted to look like marble. This allows all 4500 pipes to be completely hidden yet the sound moves throughout the structure just as beautifully as it does in any great cathedral. Regardless of all the fine art housed inside, that fact alone is enough to warrant a visit at a time when an organ concert is going to be played! (The schedule of free concerts can be found on the museum website.)
Once inside, we decided to start with the special exhibits (primarily because they were on the same floor as the cafeteria and, after our drive into San Francisco that morning, Chuck was starting to get hungry). 😉
As we entered the pin exhibit, we overheard a pair of older women comment ‘that was way more interesting than I expected’. We would have to agree. Our immediate observation was how HUGE most of the pins were. Like 6 inches tall HUGE! I guess that should come as no surprise. Thinking back, they were big enough to show up prominently on national television but, until we saw them in person, we never put two and two together.
There were photos and stories that explained when and why Madeleine wore various pins and what diplomatic point she was trying to make with each piece of her wearable art. There were labels that highlighted the makers and those who gifted certain pieces to Madeleine and why. The pins were grouped by themes and labeled with who made them, the materials used, who gifted them…every little detail. It was clear that Madeleine put a LOT of thought into what non-verbal message she wanted to send with each wearing. A visual ‘tweet’ of sorts putting her message out there with less than 140 bits of bling.
Upon leaving the pin exhibit, we turned right and entered the gallery with all the Le Nain brothers’ works. With just a couple of steps, we traveled back three centuries in time.
If Madeleine Albright was a tweeter ahead of her time, then the Le Nains might have made great reality television producers if they were alive today. Antoine, Louis and Mathieu Le Nain became famous for their beautiful and moving works of peasants, hard-working laborers and the poor. They painted everyday people doing everyday tasks wearing simple and sometimes tattered everyday clothing.
The thing we found fascinating about their work, though, wasn’t so much in the wonderful works themselves but in the fact that the brothers collaborated on them. Much like we do in our own ceramics studio, the three Le Nains were known to all work on the same piece. In fact, they never signed their works individually because they didn’t produce them individually. They functioned as a team working together to produce the final work and yet they were all seamless to the viewer. Incredible!
Also similar to our studio, where you will see us use the same couple of cats as models for our photography, the Le Nain brothers had a limited pool of models with whom they worked. As you move from painting to painting, the same faces show up just in different outfits. The same couple of cats and dogs show up in the paintings produced across the same years.
Thinking about it, that makes a lot of sense. We just never thought about it before and never noticed it in any other artist’s work. These artists, like us, were everyday people who made due with the tools and the models that they had available to them and worked together to get their products out the door and to market.
From the special exhibits (and lunch), we headed upstairs to take in the permanent collection. Spanning from Egyptian times through to the 20th century, there was a lot to see and we gave it our best effort but, by the end, we were glad we visited the special exhibits first. We’ll just have to come back to do justice to those last couple of rooms!
We spent a lovely day, saw some beautiful and inspiring works, and gained some valuable insight along the way. Pretty perfect as a one-day adventure as far as we’re concerned. Next time you have a day to spend by the Bay, the Palace of the Legion of Honor really should be on your ‘places to go’ list too.