Allow me to introduce you to two affordable San Francisco art museums (for the price of just one), that are not only beautiful examples of architecture, but also house some of finest pieces of art in the world.
That’s right, you get to waft around feeling refined and upper classy (or if you’re like me, a level above a beret-wearing dog) all for the low price of $15 per adult. Kids under 17 get in free.
So you get two affordable San Francisco art galleries for the price of one. I was a little worried about getting “all arted out” in an hour, but I was pleasantly surprised.
If you break it up with a nice lunch and a stroll through Golden Gate Park, it really is a great day out.
Art Museums in San Francisco
Collectively known as San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums, the de Young and the Legion of Honor are two of the most visited artistic institutions in the US today.
Assessed together, they are also the largest art museum in California with about 150,000 pieces of art in their collections.
You’re probably wondering about the two galleries and how the collections are divided between them.
The Legion of Honor
This museum has a gorgeous view of the water and the North Bay from its lawns, but you’ll probably be distracted by the building itself.
Based on the neoclassical Palais de la Legion d’Honneur in Paris, the French government gave permission for the replica to be built in San Francisco in 1915. But World War I meant that ground wasn’t broken for another six years.
It opened its doors on Armistice Day in 1924 and its donors asked that it would “honor the dead while serving the living”. So it became an art gallery dedicated to the Californians who died on France’s battlefields during the war.
This is where you’ll find European art, including painting, sculpture and ancient art, spanning 4,000 years. And works from famous artists such as Rodin, Monet, and Renoir.
Address: 100 34th Ave, San Francisco, CA 94121
Opening Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 9.30am-5.15pm (Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas days).
General Admission: Adults $15, Seniors $10, Students (with ID) $6, Under 17s free.
Contact: +1 888.901.6645
While the Legion of Honor feels a little more refined and old-world then its counterpart, its draw card is its obvious beauty and famous works of art.
It’s also very close to Lands End Labyrinth and Sutro Baths, and the museum is situated inside Lincoln Park. By the way, you can get some great photos of the Golden Gate Bridge from the museum as well.
Here are some highlights from the Legion of Honor.
Rodin’s The Thinker
The first stop on this tour of art museums in San Francisco presents itself even before you get inside the Legion of Honor. Auguste Rodin’s sculpture, The Thinker, is world renowned, although it was originally only 70cm tall when it was sculpted in 1880.
Although seemingly lost in thought, the piece was first called The Poet and was meant to represent Dante Alighieri, the Italian author of The Divine Comedy. He was said to be leaning forward to look over the circles of hell, which his epic poem focused on.
The Thinker was enlarged in 1904 and it became even more popular. Casts exist around the world, including in France and San Francisco, where it graces the forecourt of the Legion of Honor.
While not included in the general admission price, both museums often host special exhibitions with their own entry fee.
These are well worth the visit depending on your interests and what’s showing at the time. My visit to the Legion of Honor coincided with Klimt & Rodin: An Artistic Encounter.
Set out over four large exhibition rooms, Rodin’s sculptures intermingle with Klimt’s paintings, which are on loan from European and US collections.
Gustav Klimt’s portraits and landscapes on display include the Beethoven Frieze and The Baby.
For the kids
There are lots of sculptures and paintings that will capture the attention of younger art lovers. But one room in particular seems to catch the most attention from children and it involves embalming.
The Mummy of Irethorrou dates back to around 500 BC and is on display complete with sarcophagus and funerary wrappings.
Irethorrou, a priest, is now displayed behind glass, but archaeologists have used CT scans of his body to create a view of ancient Egyptian funeral practices.
Using a human-sized screen, you can look at the Irethorrou’s body from any angle and see the amulets carefully placed all over his body, examine bones and teeth.
Then you can gaze right at Irethorrou’s face – a reconstruction of what he looked like in life, taken from scans and reconstructions of his skull.
Impressionist Claude Monet
Framed at the end of a long corridor of art-filled rooms, hangs Claude Monet’s work. Perfectly framed by the doorway, is the unmistakable sight of Water Lilies.
It’s only fair that such a celebrated painter gets a prime position. It had been on a world tour throughout 2019, but is now back in it’s home in the Legion of Honor, where you can view it once the gallery re-opens.
It’s not Monet’s only work in the Legion of Honor though. My favourite is The Gorge at Varengeville, painted in 1882, when the artist was 42-years-old.
Despite many a search, I couldn’t find any information about this painting, so we’ll all just have to be suitably impressed with the mystery and skill involved.
And keep dreaming of retiring to a similar cottage by the sea ourselves one day.
Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Speaking of French gentlemen, we come to Auguste Renoir. His was the only painting with both a kitten and a baby in it that I have found in art museums in San Francisco.
Well played Monsieur. By the way, it’s called Mother and Child and is one of many works of the same or similar name, created by Renoir.
Apart from that obvious win, he was well regarded in impressionist circles and related to many other famous Renoir’s, it turns out.
Get yourself over to Gallery three then look up. Then pick your jaw up off the floor.
You’re staring at a ceiling from the Palacio de Altamira, which is made from painted and gilded wood.
It’s from a place called Toledo in central Spain and dates back to the late 1400s. The designs have an Islamic origin, but the ceiling also displays Christian motifs.
Carrier-Belleuse’s Mary Queen of Scots
If I had to pick a sculpture from the diverse collection inside the Legion of Honor, it would be Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse’s depiction of the Red Queen.
The French sculptor first trained as a goldsmith and worked in both England and Brussels. Oh, and Rodin was his apprentice at one point.
The intricate work on “Bloody Mary’s” bodice and jewelry is enough to make me stare in awe for quite a while.
The De Young Museum
Surrounded by the greenery of Golden Gate Park and facing the California Academy of Sciences, the de Young museum has been around in one form or another since 1895.
What will you find there? The quick answer is “everything”. It’s collection covers cultures from all over the world, ranging from the beginning of known human history to today.
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If you’re only able to stop at one art museum in San Francisco, the de Young should probably be tha tone.
You’ll find American painting, sculpture and other types of art spanning the 17th and 21st centuries. There’s a mix of contemporary and older artwork from Africa, Australasia and Polynesia.
Before we get into what’s inside, let’s pause just outside for a second. The copper-clad building is a sight to behold, especially with the twisting tower jutting up at its back.
Address: 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118
Opening Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 9.30am-5.15pm (Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas days)
General Admission: Adults $15, Seniors $10, Students (with ID) $6, Under 17s free.
Contact: +1 888.901.6645
The de Young is my pick for families with younger children. That’s not to say that they wouldn’t like the Legion of Honor, but the de Young collection seems to be slightly more catered to them.
From the layout of the art work, to the outdoor art area, where children can run around a small portion of the Golden Gate Park and explore interactive pieces.
Here are some of the highlights of the de Young.
Garden of Enchantment
Your fist stop has to be the Garden of Enchantment, set over an acre of land surrounding the de Young Museum.
When there are attractions with names like the Pool of Enchantment, Menagerie, Fog Bog, Stone Pine Room and Wisteria Poles, you know it’s going to be an adventure.
And there’s one decidedly shiny addition that catches the eye and puts a smile on even the most stoic faces.
It’s a sculpture by Peter Coffin called Untitled (Pirate) and features a cast aluminium swashbuckler who is a genuine site to behold.
With two hooks for hands, a parrot on each shoulder, two peg legs and both eyes patched, this pirate still seems to be a force to be reckoned with.
The most San Franciscan pirate of them all!
de Young Museum Cafe
Anyone else completely famished? All of this wandering and art-gazing has given me an appetite to rival Mr Pirate out there.
So once we’ve shown our Legion of Honor ticket and gotten free entry to the de Young Museum, I’m heading straight for the cafe.
It’s got all the tasty-looking salads, sandwiches, yoghurt and granola pots, pastries and coffees that you can handle.
But if you visit on a Sunday, like I did, you can also take advantage of the brunch/lunch menu.
I went with the chicken and dumplings, and felt very fancy and refined… were it not for my glass of orange juice. You can order wine though.
Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden
If you decided to eat lunch outside you’ve already noticed the Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden.
But if not, it’s time for a little stroll out there. And did you know that you can rent that space out for, say, a wedding?
Anyway, back to the garden. It’s got some pretty whimsical pieces, such as the giant safety pin, or more traditional pieces of sculpture.
The best part is that your little ones can run around and play around and touch the pieces. Lots of fun for everyone!
Gallery five was one of my favourite rooms of art in the whole museum. There is sculpture and art of every type imaginable and it’s colourful.
As you walk down the corridor, through the Art of the Americas, you’ll see Viola Frey’s imposing sculpture, Man Observing Series II.
When I first saw it, I thought Donald Trump was staring down at me, it was a little scary. But once you get into the room and look around you’ll see why I liked it so much.
There is a great collection of pieces like a soundsuit by Nick Cave (no, not the famous Australian musician), three tribal mask-like pieces by Willam Morris (definitely not that one), and a stained glass window by Judith Schaechter. I don’t know any other Judith Schaechter’s.
Next door in gallery four lives the work of the Native artists of western North America.
This is where you’ll find intricate wood carvings, masks, woven fabrics and a pretty cool painting of the world coloured by climate.
It’s all about native artists using the resources they found around them to create works that have lasted centuries.
History through art
One of the most striking pieces hangs from the ceiling in gallery 16, in the 20th Century and Contemporary Art section.
In creating Anti-Mass artist Cornelia Parker took the charred remains of an Alabama African-American Baptist Church that was destroyed by arsonists.
The floating cube of charred wood hangs from the ceiling, suspended by wires, to create the effect of a building risen from its own ashes.
The Maori Portraits
This free exhibition was on loan from New Zealand the de Young, and it was one of the most memorable parts of my visit.
It’s made up of 31 portraits of Maori community leaders from the 19th century.
Some are painted from photographs and others sat for artist Gottfried Lindauer to be immortalised in startlingly-realistic paintings.
Lindauer was born in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) and ended up painting the largest number of Maori portraits that exist today.
You can feel the strength and resilience in every man and woman portrayed in these portraits. Their eyes capture yours. It’s just breathtaking.
Be sure to catch the exhibition if you visit before April 1, 2018.
+ Arrive early if you want to make a day of it. Especially if there’s an interesting special exhibition on.
+ If you want to see a special exhibition, you can book online in advance to secure your tickets and avoid disappointment.
+ Wear your comfortable shoes and clothes. You’ll be standing and walking around for most of the day.
+ Have fun!
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