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Friday Slide Show: Poem of the Vine Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

8 September 2017

In wine, truth. In dreams, diversion. After years of watching Antiques Roadshow and wondering just what we'd bring for appraisal, we realized in a dream it would have to be Gustave Dorè's monumental Poéme de la vigne.

And of course we own it. It's the property of the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums and thereby the citizens of San Francisco. Of which we are one.

We'd patiently sit through the story behind it, of course, but the real reason we'd truck it in to the show would be to find out the insurance value.

"Have you ever had it appraised?" the art expert from Sothebys & Somewhere would ask.

"Once, a long time ago," we'd say. If I remember, they said it was a one-of-a-kind sort of thing but they could offer me $10,000 for it. But they'd have to skip lunches for three years."

"Well, that's right," the appraiser would say. "There aren't two of them in the world. So there are no comparables, really. Still, would you like to know what it's worth today?"

"Conservatively. Yes."

"Well, so would I," the expert would have to admit.

We didn't make up that $10,000. That's what Michael H. de Young, publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, paid for it after seeing the piece at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago and transporting it home for the 1894 California Midwinter Exposition, which was held right where the de Young Museum can be found today.

We didn't adjust for inflation because it was a dream and we couldn't access the Internet.

Dorè's 11-foot tall, three-ton vase had originally been commissioned by French winemakers in homage to themselves for the 1878 Paris World's Fair. But the sculptor passed away before the Thiebault Brothers foundry could be paid. So the foundry shipped it to the U.S. for the 1983 Chicago exhibition where they hoped to recoup their losses by charging admission to see it.

Even better, de Young bought it.

The 1906 earthquake knocked it over but didn't damage it. And San Franciscans of any age can tell you you can find it in Golden Gate Park outside the de Young.

When we started our personal Web site (years before Photo Corners), we used a few of the vignettes that surround the vase in our marketing on the site and our business cards. We'd always been drawn to the bugs, rats and spiders that the cherubs, bacchantes and satyrs do battle with under the appreciative eyes of the naked Diana and the protection of useless Bacchus and his doubly-useless sidekick Silenus. It was a Poem of Business Life to us.

In those days, though, digital photography was just elbowing its way onto the scene. We've shot the vase with Nikon's original Coolpix 900, a Kodak DC290 and a Nikon D200.

So over the years we've walked by the vase with various more modern cameras and taken more shots. For today's slide show, we included images from 1999, 2000 and 2013. We're partial to the ones from 1999 when we had the advantage of an overcast day. But none of them are very good.

In The Life and Reminiscences of Gustave Dorè, Blanche Roosevelt, who remembered "coming by accident upon this vase, which struck me spell-bound," (when it was exhibited in Paris) tells the vase's story:

It would be difficult to describe this unique creation, or to say exactly what it means. It tells a different story to every one; the story, mayhap, that each spectator locks up within his own breast. The vase is called "The Poem of the Vine," and is necessarily allegorical. In shape it resembles an Italian flask; in size it is colossal; the story of the vine is told by the countless figures standing out life-like on its curved sides. To the commonplace I would say, imagine a tale of love, intoxication, enjoyment, life and mystery. Fawns, nymphs, cherubs and roses mingle in one luxuriant harmonious maze. Babies clasp the foot of the pedestal; cupids crown the neck of the flash; heavy-laden vines cling and droop with a wealth of fruit and a world of imagery; the sculpted creatures live, move and speak; the flowers waft rich perfumes, the grapes a faint aroma; this world of human and humanized being revels in one dizzy whirl of delight and maddening ecstasy. What could have been the state of Dorè's brain while this mad carnival was going on within it? Like Endymion when he followed the nymph, a glimpse of whom meant madness, whilst looking at this great work we are overwhelmed with varied feelings of audacity and hesitation, courage and fear, delight and despair.

Gustave Dorè put his highest aspirations and fondest hopes into this work. He labored night and day, day and night, sure of his inspiration and happy in his fancy, alternately excited and soothed by those fast-coming, ever-flowing illusions which characterized his every new ambition. He planned, sketched, modelled, even moulded his work, and his time for some months was absolutely give up to "The Vine," as well as the material results of his other mental and manual labor, which were lavishly devoted to the composition and execution of this masterpiece. It is estimated that the vase cost Dorè over sixty thousand francs, or very nearly three thousand pounds sterling. But he never thought of his hard-earned money. He only said to himself, "I am creating a work which should give all men pleasure" and from the perfection of his labor and the conscientiousness with which every leak was modelled he felt that he must be doing good work, and positively hoped to see his vase adorn some great public building, some well-known palace, or some square in his beautiful Paris.

Need I say that he was disappointed? When the exhibition closed, not only did Dorè neither receive any medal or recompense from the Government, but amongst the many foreigners upon whom medals were bestowed for sculptures there was not one name, unless we accept the Italian sculptor Monti, whose works were not vastly inferior to Dorè's. Although decorative art is not necessarily expressed in sculpture, this vase must be ranked in both categories.

Roosevelt goes on to tell us Dorè had "old-fashioned ideas about merit, and merit alone, making its way unaided in the world." Even then, you needed a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a content strategist adept with social media or, as it is more chicly known now, just plain old social.

Instead, the man took care of his mother, who passed away in 1881 leaving him bereft.

Apparently, not even a glass of wine could comfort the poor soul.

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