looking back

‘Looking Back’: Poème de la Vigne

By Kinen Carvala

Why have a giant vase in Golden Gate Park depicting bugs attacking cherubs?

Sculptor Gustave Doré drew on ideas from French wine and Greco-Roman mythology for the various figures all around the bronze vase, named Poème de la Vigne (Poem of the Vine) which weighs almost three tons, according to the de Young Museum’s website. The bottom of the roughly 11-foot-tall vase features bugs, referring to the literal pests that devoured grape crops during Doré’s 19th century, a time before modern pesticides, according to Paul Lang, the National Gallery of Canada’s chief curator. 

The next time visiting Golden Gate Park, take a close look at the huge vase, titled “Poème de la Vigne,” near the de Young Museum in the Music Concourse. Startling images of cherubs fighting with insects symbolize protecting grapes from harm. A keen eye can see the signature of the sculpture’s artist, Gustave Doré, engraved into the sculpture’s base. Photos by Eloise Kelsey.

The bugs are fighting putti, baby-like cherubs who take care of the grapes and represent fertility, as described by Lin Vertefeuille. 

Farther up, the vase widens (up to 22 feet in circumference, according to Christopher Pollock’s book on Golden Gate Park) and hosts a bacchanalia, a wine-filled party featuring not only the adult male god of wine (Greek name Dionysus or Roman name Bacchus), but an entire crowd of festive partiers. It also includes the god’s attendant Silenus, as well as bacchantes, female followers of the god. Also featured are divine figures associated with woodlands, including Diana, the goddess of the hunt and satyrs (part human and part goat). 

The top of the vase shows the triumph of wine, with its joyous and intoxicating effects.

Doré did not have San Francisco in mind when creating his vase. Doré’s goal was to exhibit the vase at the 1878 World’s Fair in Paris. He managed to show the full-size vase there, but it was in plaster, as there wasn’t enough time to cast it in bronze. 

In 1882, Doré managed to have the Thiébaut Brothers foundry cast the vase in bronze, although he couldn’t pay the 60,000-franc cost (about $310,000 today), as John Martini described in Outside Lands magazine. Doré expected to pay the foundry once he sold the vase, but he died in 1883. The Chicago 1893 World’s Fair gave the brothers a chance to exhibit the vase, where it caught the eye of Michael H. de Young, co-founder and publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle. He arranged for its display at the 1894 Midwinter Exposition in Golden Gate Park. More than 10 years after casting the vase, the brothers finally sold it to de Young, but at a loss, at a price of 50,000 francs. 

Ever since the vase arrived in San Francisco for the 1894 Midwinter Fair, it has been moved around within Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse. During the fair, a tree grove secluded it west of today’s Academy of Sciences. The fair’s Fine Arts Building remained after the fair as a Memorial Museum, and was eventually renamed  the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, with the vase placed at the entrance. The vase was moved into a new Hall of Statuary which opened in 1919, moved outside in the mid-20th century and then moved back inside again in the late 1960s. 

The vase was not damaged during the 1989 earthquake, but the de Young museum was damaged from the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes. The museum was first shored-up and then reconstructed from 2001 to 2005, during which the vase was either in storage or displayed at the Legion of Honor museum.

Gustave Doré was born in 1832 in Strasbourg. (It was in France then and is in France today, but at various other times, it was part of Germany due to wars’ outcomes.)

Doré, as a 15 year old on a trip to Paris with his parents, showed his sketches to a comics publisher, who gave him a three-year contract, according to the Getty Museum. 

In the mid-1850s, Doré shifted from drawing satirical comics to providing illustrations for literary works like Dante’s Divine Comedy, Fairy Tales of Mother Goose, Don Quixote and the Bible. 

Doré’s early success and natural talent as a self-taught commercial illustrator did not incentivize him to undergo formal artistic training. He was inducted into France’s highest order of merit, the Legion of Honour, first at the knight level (1861) and later as an officer (1878). 

Doré became the “founding father of comic book art” and also became skilled as a watercolor painter and sculptor, according to the National Gallery of Canada. He also used services from many engravers over the course of his career. The Doré Gallery in London displayed examples of his work in every genre from 1868 onward. 

Doré died in 1883 at age 51, leaving behind 50,000 drawings. The vase was featured in Robert Minervini’s Art on San Francisco’s Market Street Kiosk Poster series in 2015. Doré likely thought little of San Francisco while making the vase for a French audience, but a vase celebrating “revelry and hedonist delights” (in writer Monique Delaunay’s words) found itself in a San Francisco that still had the 1849 Gold Rush and Barbary Coast in living memory during its 1894 fair.

The vase is located near the de Young museum on the north side of the Music Concourse, south of the Pool of Enchantment. On the northwest side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, you can see the vase between two sphinxes.

Find an archive of Kinen Carvala’s Looking Back columns HERE.

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