Sensory Overload in San Francisco

Dec 21, 2015 | 3 comments

jewel_city-home_3Past and present collided yesterday as Marta, Nyel and I wandered and wondered through the DeYoung Museum’s “Jewel City: Art from San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exposition.” My mother had seen these very paintings a century ago – as had her brothers and sisters and her mother and father! If time travel and déjà vu can be combined with an out-of-body experience, that’s what I experienced.

H. A. Espy Children, 1913

H. A. Espy Children, 1913

My earliest memories include stories of that once-in-a-lifetime trip from Oysterville to San Francisco to “visit the fair” in the summer of 1915. My mother, the youngest was 3; Willard, 4; Edwin, 6; Mona, 11; Sue, 13; and Medora was 16. They journeyed by ship, spending the summer with the California relatives and my grandmother’s girlhood friends. Papa, who stayed behind to run the dairy farm, joined them late in August.

Later, Willard would write about Edwin on the voyage south: Looking enviously at the bustle on the lower decks when we took a boat from Astoria to San Francisco for the 1915 World’s Fair, he asked wistfully, “Can’t we pay extra and go steerage?” Also, according to Willard:  At the fair, itself, he proved to be a seven-year-old artistic reactionary: “That picture,” he said, examining ‘Nude Descending a Staircase,’ “must have been taken before they had Kodaks.”


‘Nude Descending A Staircase’ by Marcel Duchamp

“That picture” was not included in the present exhibition. However, many that had never been exhibited before or since were among the treasures on display. For whatever reason, it came as a revelation to me that many of the European masterpieces had originally been included in the ‘Fair’ as a means of getting them away from the threat of loss in the World War.

I loved seeing a photograph of the Palace of Fine Arts, taken by thirteen-year-old Ansel Adams! I knew Ansel in the sixties and seventies, but it was only yesterday that I realized he would have been Medora’s contemporary. Maybe they were at the Fair at the same time!

My mother was too young to remember much about their trip, but she did speak wryly of the fact that a “perambulator” had been rented for Willard because he was considered “delicate” (had been born with a rheumatic heart) while she, who was eleven months younger, had to walk. And, in a letter home to her father, Medora wrote:

Marta in the Rain at the DeYoung

Marta in the Rain at the DeYoung

At last our dreams are realized and we really are here! Yesterday we … attempted to see a little corner of the Fair, but we only went through five buildings and did not see one thoroughly. It is immense compared to the northern expositions, a regular fairyland of beauty. During the entire day we only went through Canadian Pacific, Mines, Agriculture, Horticulture, Californian building, Liberal Arts and Transportation. Every minute I missed you, as I did so want to linger at different places where you would have been interested. Of course, yesterday we looked at everything with the children in view, forgetting the important educational value for grownups…

The “Jewel City” exhibition was only a fraction of what Medora saw but, even so, it was immensely educational and I sure did wish I could have had one of those perambulators.


  1. Jane E Smith

    The Asian Art Museum has a great exhibit title Looking East. If you have time……but I know you are passing through. My brother is a docent at the Museum. Isn’t the “new” DeYoung amazing?

  2. Stephanie Frieze

    How wonderful to feel as though you are repeating your family history! And that your family documented the trip!

  3. Bruce Jones

    The Asian Museum exhibit on Japanese influences on Impressionist European art is WONDERFUL! Whether the thesis is correct or not,all the art shown is just great.


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