Along San Francisco’s northern waterfront in 1915, thousands of residents and visitors admired such works of art as Claude Monet’s “Rouen Cathedral Facade” (1892), Winslow Homer’s “Saco Bay” (1896) and “The Sketchers” (1913) by John Singer Sargent.
Those paintings were among the estimated 20,000 works of art from more than 70 international lenders and the permanent collections of local museums featured at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the world’s fair that celebrated the rebirth of San Francisco after the devastating earthquake and fire in 1906.
Such artworks have not been seen together in the 100 years following the fair.
Until this week.
As part of the yearlong centennial celebration of the fair, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are presenting “Jewel City: Art from San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition,” an exhibition of some 200 pieces of art that were displayed a century ago.
The exhibit opens Saturday at the de Young Museum.
“Clearly we can only scratch the surface, but we want to give people an experience that recaptures, reproduces the experience of fairgoers in 1915,” said James Ganz, curator of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
“By bringing the same works of art back to San Francisco, we can actually do that,” he explained.
Ganz has spent the past three years identifying works of art from the fair and securing their loan for the exhibit, as well as writing a catalog that will serve as the standard reference of art from the world’s fair.
“It’s actually pretty powerful. We’re installing the show right now,” Ganz said. “We are literally opening crates and taking objects out of them. Some of these are works that haven’t been here since 1915.”
The exhibit also commemorates the 10th anniversary of the reopening of the de Young Museum, the oldest museum in San Francisco. The museum, which along with the Legion of Honor comprise the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, was founded in 1895 as the Memorial Museum by newspaperman M.H. de Young. It was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and remained closed until 2005 after a decade of planning efforts.
Bringing the world’s fair to San Francisco in 1915, much like securing support to reopen the de Young Museum at its original location in Golden Gate Park, proved challenging.
San Francisco seriously began toying with the idea of hosting a world’s fair in 1904, but it was The City’s recovery from the devastation of the 1906 earthquake and fire that opened up the possibility of the fair serving a dual purpose.
The fair celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal that allowed ships to cut across the Isthmus of Panama for the first time, serving as a significant channel for international maritime trade. Additionally, it showcased San Francisco’s recovery from the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire that left much of The City in ruins.
But the fair also invoked an appreciation of the arts among residents not previously seen in The City’s history.
“After this fair brought in major works of art, really just of great quality, it created an appetite for art and it also provoked individuals and institutions like San Francisco Art Association to capitalize on this interest in art,” said Ganz.
The impact of art from the fair still exists in The City today. The Palace of Fine Arts, where much of the artwork was showcased at the fair, is the only building from the fair still situated on its original site.
“The presence of this international art exhibition throughout the year of 1915 certainly inspired everybody to want to have more art in San Francisco,” Ganz noted.
In fact, the Palace of Fine Arts reopened almost immediately with a post-exposition exhibition after the fair closed Dec. 4, 1915. It remained open for about six months, then was taken over by the San Francisco Art Association that ran it as a museum until 1924, the same year the Legion of Honor opened.
Around the time of the world’s fair closing, de Young sought to have the Palace of Fine Arts moved to Golden Gate Park. When that effort failed, de Young announced a major expansion of the Memorial Museum that was completed in 1919.
The appreciation of art in San Francisco has continued through the decades, with many major exhibitions coming through the de Young Museum and Legion of Honor in the past decade.
“We really pride ourselves on having a varied and rich schedule of exhibitions,” said Julian Cox, founding curator of photography and chief curator of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Jewel City: Art from San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition
Oct. 17, 2015 – Jan. 10, 2016
Herbst Exhibition Galleries
Prints at the Fair
Oct. 10, 2015 – Jan. 10, 2016
Anderson Gallery 17
Prints at the Pair is a companion exhibition to Jewel City: Art from San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition.