The attention the re-opened De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park has drawn has overshadowed its sister San Francisco museum, the Palace of the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park on the bluff above “Land’s End” – the northwestern edge of the San Francisco peninsula. The museum is surrounded by view from the front of the museum is surrounded by the Lincoln Park Golf Course (though it is not immediately obvious that there is golf course west and below the museum). Just west of the parking lot is the Holocaust Memorial by George Segal in which one survivor is looking through barbed wire at the Pacific Ocean (outside the Golden Gate) an the Marin County Headlands.The view from near the entrance to the museum is spectacular, encompassing the Golden Gate and its famed bridge, the Pacific Ocean outside the Golden Gate, the Marin (County) Headlands, and the skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco, and many trees.
The pillared outdoor court has Rodin’s “Thinker” in its center and a glass pyramid somewhat like (but smaller than) the one in the Louvre. It is supposed to supply natural light to a rotunda sculpture gallery beneath it,. that was added during a seismic retrofitting in the early 1990s. 95+ percent of the time the light is blocked as parts of special exhibits occupy the gallery, including the current one of works on paper “From Rembrandt to Thiebaud.”
There is, however, natural light in the rotunda inside and above the ground and an adjoining gallery that display other Rodin sculptures-and the Skinner organ on which recitals are given Saturday and Sunday afternoons (at 4 PM). Alma Spreckels, heir to a sugar fortune, had the museum build and donated her collection of more than 70 Rodins to it, the largest assemblage of Rodin works west of Philadelphia.
The building was a three-quarter scale “adaptation” of the Beaux-artes Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris (The Hôtel de Salm, kas it was first called, on the Seine’s left bank, was designed by Pierre Rousseau in 1782 for the Prince de Salm-Kyrbour). Mrs. Spreckels adored the French Pavilion at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition that was a replica of it, and commemorates 3600 California casualties in the First World War. It opened on Armistice Day (now Veteran’s Day) in November of 1924. The early 1990s reconstruction increased the exhibition space by 42%
In addition to its very striking location with a panoramic view of woods, ocean, and cityscape; the display and lighting inside the museum are outstanding (upgraded along with the building in the early 1990s).
The collections include extensive holdings of European and early American decorative art and of 18th-century English and French porcelain that don’t much interest me. It has small collections of ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Mesopotamia art in a few cases on the lower level. On that level, just before the cafeteria (with indoor and outdoor tables) is a gallery displaying changing exhibits of 20th-century lives d’artistes, limited editions of books featuring illustrations by major artists. The museum also has an extensive graphic art collection, the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts.
In addition to the Rodins, the collection of European paintings is the strength of the Palace’s collection. There are a pair of El Grecos (the one of St. Francis contemplating a crucifix is probably the pinnacle of the collection), a striking Judith attributed to Lucas Carnach, a Fra Angelico (The Meeting of St. Francis and St. Dominic), an unusually (in my view!) interesting Rubens (with Christ with an upraised hand while the other collects “tribute”). There are some top-flight Monets (a Venice Grand Canal, Water Lilies, Waves Breaking, and two pre-1875 paintings) and unimpressive early Van Goghs. (The best Matisses in town are in SFMOMA, and everyone has many Picassoes…). I particularly like a 1500 French wood-carving of Saint Boniface, a portrait by Jean Hugo, a painter whose other works are unfamiliar to me (not currently on display) and James Tissot’s contemplative 1865 self portrait. The collection of Impressionists and post-impressionists in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena is the best on the West Coast, but the Palace has some fine works, and reaches further back, including the spectacular inlaid wooden roof from a medieval Spanish church (see my photographs).
Information on current special exhibitions is at http://www.legionofhonor.org/legion/exhibitions/index.asp.
Right now there is a roomful of Henry Moore works (including a tapestry) promised the museum.. Memorable exhibits in recent years have included a Francis Bacon retrospective, Monet in Normandy, Degas sculptures, a multimedia Art Deco show, and the Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya.
The cafeteria usually has good salads and desserts. The line at lunch time is long and processed slowly.
Admission prices to the museum: are Adults $10, Seniors (62 and older, with ID) $7, Youth 13-17 $6, Children 12 and under free. San Francisco visitors should consider getting a CityPass, which includes admission to the three main art museums, a 7-day MUNI (public transportation) and cable car pass, a bay cruise, and entrance to the Exploratorium for $42 (see http://citypass.com/city/sanfrancisco.html?mv_source=deyoung). There is no admission charge the first Tuesday of each month. Entrance to both the Palace and to the De Young is free for members of the San Francisco Museum Society.
The museum is within the Lincoln Park Golf Course on 34th Avenue north from Clement Street. The #18 bus runs to the fountain across the street from the Legion of Honor, For more detailed public transportation directions see http://www.thinker.org/legion/visiting/subpage.asp?subpagekey=31.
There is limited parking there, and more on El Camino de Mar, which runs more or less east-west north of the museum.
The Palace is open Tuesday – Sunday, 9:30 am – 5:00 pm; the cafeteria closes (annoyingly!) at 4. The museum is closed New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
Photography for personal use is allowed. No flash, video, or tripods. And silence beepers and cellphones, puh-LEEZE!