Alma de Bretteville Spreckels
wife of sugar baron Adolph Spreckels, loved art and according to historical accounts, attended art classes studying art which lead her to becoming the model for the statue atop the Dewey Monument in Union Square in downtown San Francisco. It was her love of art and her ambition, along with the Spreckels fortune that provided much of the grandeur that the Legion of Honor Museum is today. Surprisingly, as reported by The New Fillmore Newspaper,
de Bretteville originally wanted the museum to be built in Pacific Heights at Alta Plaza Park. (If that had been so, imagine trying to park the car, these days, that would have turned into a nightmare). Fortunately for San Francisco and those who visit the Legion of Honor, de Bretteville realized the place over time would need more room to expand. She most likely would be thrilled to know that pieces from The Louvre are currently on display, giving witness to an era that most people only read about in history books. Yet, thanks to The Louvre's director Henri Loyrette and former SF Fine Arts Museum director John Buchanan, the San Francisco public gets to see the remnants of King Louis XIV to Marie-Antoinette up close and in full view.
There is something about seeing artifacts and art pieces up close. And at least for this reporter, the items on display give some hints as to why there was a French Revolution. Yes, the pieces are exquisite works of art in and of themselves, like the miniature statue of "Christ at the Pillar" with diamonds on his loincloth. (This like several of the items on display were thought provoking for this reporter, diamonds on a loincloth, hmm!) But I had to ask some of the gallery attendants who stood in the background to make sure no photos were snapped, "did they really use these items in daily life?"
For example, a gold coffee grinder and a selection of intricately crafted tobacco-snuff boxes encrusted with an array of precious jewels. I was told by several in passing that "yes, they really did use them and most likely it was to impress." Drinking vessels and other items made of amethyst, jade and amber, boggle this reporter's mind. Such items are too beautiful and delicate to be used like a household item. Yet, this was the lifestyle of King Louis and his court.
At the peak of the reign of the monarchy's power as many as 800 artists and craftsman worked to make objects for the king and the royal household. Some of the made items were presented as gifts in matters of diplomatic visits and such. Still when placed against the striking contrast of the ordinary people of France of the time, it is a staggering divide between the immense wealth of the monarchy and the dire poverty of the peasants.
History has seen this type of scene before even in more recent times such as in the Russian Revolution. The similarities were obvious to me. Czar Nicholas and his family lived in extreme splendor while most of the everyday people scrapped up a meager existence living as surfs.
Both in the French monarchy and in the later Russian royal family the firm belief of "ruling by divine right" helped set the stage for rebellion.
As I meandered through the exhibit which does not take much time, a fellow exhibit viewer commented "true there was that divide between the very rich and the very poor, yet it was France who helped in the American Revolution." This too puzzled me because why would an absolute monarch like the dandy "Sun King" Louis who ruled by divine right support a revolution that was advocating for 'no taxation without representation?’
While at first glance such support seemed unlikely, historian Robert Wilde who writes for About.com points out,
"France was a colonial rival of Britain, and while arguably Europe’s most prestigious nation, France had suffered humiliating defeats to the British in the Seven Years War - especially its American theater, the French-Indian War - only years earlier. France was looking for any way to boost its own reputation while undermining Britain, and helping the colonists to independence looked like a perfect way of doing this."
How fortunate for the emerging American colony which would then soon become a nation. Yet it was very clear to me, how short-sighted the French monarchy was; and perhaps another history lesson in how shortsighted all people in power with such immense wealth can be.
Frankly, for the admission price I was disappointed with the exhibit in comparison to other exhibits I have seen at both the Legion of Honor Museum and at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. Perhaps because the amount of material on display is only a remnant of what once was? Much was lost after the French Revolution. Yes, there were some fine examples of artifacts from the King Louis period. Yet in this day and age of expanding access to knowledge and varying points of reference, the exhibit did not explain much without a docent or an audio-recorded tour. (The audio tour costs extra). The San Francisco Chronicle hinted at this in a review by art critic Kenneth Baker
""Royal Treasures" tries gingerly to make the case that Louis XVI, who lost his head to history in 1793, had more public-spirited bones in his body than his executioners credited. He, after all, first established what became the Musée du Louvre as a public exhibition space."
The extended efforts to bring these King Louis artifacts from The Louvre to San Francisco is appreciated. Yet I consoled my disappointment and the dent in my wallet by taking in the really wonderful collection the Legion of Honor already has, thanks to "big Alma." Her determination and forward-thinking spirit is what brought the French culture heritage to San Francisco, even when she was given the cold-shoulder by many in San Francisco at the time.
At the Legion of Honor a visitor can take in not only something from King Louis' time but from many eras and time-frames of European history. The collection of Impressionist art and sculpture by Rodin is impressive. And, the building itself
, fashioned after the neoclassical building of the same name in Paris, is set within Lincoln Park with those sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, breathtaking. While I will say I was pleasantly disappointed with the limited aspects of the exhibit, I walked away with an even greater appreciation for the Legion of Honor Museum itself and how fortunate San Francisco is to have such a museum, Thanks Alma!
For more information about "Royal Treasures from The Louvre" which is on display until March 17, visit the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco website.