Recent Comments

    Enormous Vase at de Young Is an Ode to Wine

    In front of the de Young sits Poème de la vigne aka “Poem of the vine” (1877–1878, cast in 1882), a monumental bronze vase by Gustave Doré (French, 1832–1883) that has been a feature of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s two institutions since 1895.

    Doré was one of the most prodigious artists of the 19th century, and few works illustrate the depth of his creative vision as well as this colossal ode to French winemakers, which, appropriately, has found its home in our state, well known for its viticulture. Measuring about 11 feet high and weighing nearly three tons, the work is one of the largest bronze castings of its time.

    At the time he made this vase, Doré was well known as an illustrator for such books and poems as Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” and Dante’s Inferno, as well as for works by Balzac, Byron, Milton, Shakespeare, and Tennyson. Doré primarily worked in the medium of wood engraving, but when he finally turned to sculpture in the 1870s, he approached it with the same originality he brought to his book illustrations.

    Poème de la vigne, originally intended to be the centerpiece of a display on winemaking at the Exposition Universelle of 1878 in Paris, was a major artistic and technical undertaking. Its allegorical narrative depicts mythological figures associated with the rites of Bacchus (the Roman god of wine), including Silenus (Bacchus’s drunken attendant) and Diana (goddess of the hunt, associated with woodlands and wild animals). It further employs an abundance of smaller putti, satyrs, bacchantes, and creatures that menace the precious grapes, including a giant spider, a rat, several snakes, and a horde of insects.

    BT 3.24 fix_Page_20_Image_0004

    Michael H. de Young, publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, saw the bronze cast at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, and, enchanted by the piece, ensured that it would be on display for the 1894 California Midwinter Exposition (located on the site of today’s de Young). After the fair, he purchased the piece for approximately $10,000.

    Over the years, finding the most suitable venue for this massive work proved to be a challenge. It was relocated several times, and museum officials also considered turning it into a fountain. After being displayed at the Legion of Honor for some time, the vase was returned to the de Young when the museum was rebuilt in 2005.

    During your next visit to the de Young, see Poème de la vigne situated between Arthur Putman’s two sphinxes (ca. 1910) alongside the Pool of Enchantment at the eastern end of the museum.