Masterworks at the Legion of Honor

August 2, 2018

In 2012, I trained as a docent at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Following are my own interpretations of a few paintings in the European art collection at the Legion of Honor.

Rembrandt painted a portrait of Dutch naval captain, Joris de Caulerij in 1632. We know Joris is an officer by the bandolier and cavalry sword tucked in his left side; he holds a firearm in his right. The young officer would later become a war hero. Rembrandt, at 26 was starting out too, and it seems these men were seeing eye to eye on more than one level. Joris engages us with a confident and straightforward gaze.

Portrait of Joris de Caulerij    1632, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

A large shadow falls across the lower portion of the composition. Evidently, it’s being cast from a light behind the artist as he stood at his easel. Surely Rembrandt set the scene intentionally.



Neoclassical painter, Baron Francois Gerard, was commissioned to paint the Comtesse de Morel-Vinde and her daughter in 1799. The French Revolution happened in 1789 but these aristocrats managed to retain their titles and their heads–doubtfully by happenstance. These stoic and virtuous women are wearing column-like dresses that imitated Greek and Roman drapery, thereby rejecting the style and values of the Rococo movement.

Comtesse de Morel-Vinde and her Daughter (The Music Lesson) 1799, Baron Francois-Pascal-Simon Gerard

The daughter takes a break from her piano playing where her music sheet reads, “To my mother”. The two have lovingly clasped hands at the exact center of the picture. The gesture might appear slightly awkward at first but more conspicuously, Gerard has created the shape of a heart.



Masada, which means fortress in Hebrew, became an armed Jewish camp in revolt against Rome in AD 66.  According to historical accounts, the 10th Roman Legion laid siege to the fortress in AD 72-73. After  Roman battering rams breached the gates, the defending group of 967 Jews chose to commit suicide by dagger rather than submit to capture. This picture, painted in 1858 by British artist, Edward Lear, effectively conveys the searing heat, as well as the site’s tragic history.

Masada 1858, Edward Lear

Lear’s shadow shapes converge into a sharp point at the center of the picture, possibly like the tip of an ancient dagger.



This maritime painting made in 1641 by Jan Van Goyen is set in Dutch inland waters. The seafaring crew meet with a dramatic thunderstorm; a boat in the center of the picture is close to capsizing. Despite a severe weather beating of vessels, trees, and water these sailors are undaunted—a testament to Dutch marine prowess at that time. A sense of pride might be seen in the high-flying national flag.

Of particular interest is Van Goyen’s thick versus thin paint application. The top 2/3 of the picture, the thunderstorm, features thick, sweeping diagonal strokes of white oil paint (probably a lead white), pulled down as sheets of rain. That force is poetically contrasted with paint handling below the horizon. There, it appears Van Goyen used a considerable amount of solvent to thin and weaken his paint. Scumbling this mixture onto the surface, he creates submissive waves and delicate, bending trees. The effect is best seen while standing in front of the original.



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