Portrait of Dorothy Spreckels Munn

Portrait of Dorothy Spreckels Munn by Salvador Dalí

What is the relationship of dreams and reality?

Dorothy Spreckels Munn was a daughter of Alma and Adolph Spreckels, founders of the Legion of Honor. Here she is portrayed as a sea nymph, reminiscent of Renaissance depictions of Galatea. While working on this portrait, Dalí and his wife, Gala, lived with Munn for over a month; she sat for him multiple times, sometimes for hours, as he sketched her in various postures. Ultimately, Dalí abandoned these studies and rendered her in a pose developed, like the background, purely from imagination.

Enid Haldorn

Enid Haldorn by Salvador Dalí

What does this painting represent to you?

This painting depicts Enid Haldron sitting on a low pile of adobe bricks on a vast sandy beach. Nine other characters wander the shoreline in the distance. By choosing this setting, Dalí hints at the location of Enid and her husband’s home: a seaside mansion in Monterey with its own private beach. The dancing woman on the right also suggests Enid’s past, when she would perform for charity. One of Enid’s good friends was Kathleen de Young, the daughter of the de Young museum’s founder.

O in Persian Costume

O in Persian Costume by Robert Henri
What is the impact of color here?

Here the artist’s wife wears a glimmering headdress and tunic laden with beadwork. The sharp color contrasts, variations in texture, and changeable brushwork create a dynamism that seems to describe the subject herself.

Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (Savages of the Pacific Ocean)

Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (Savages of the Pacific Ocean) by Jean Gabriel Charvet, Joseph Dufour

What can we learn from historical inaccuracies?

Exhibited in Paris in 1804, this wallpaper is believed to be one of the first panoramic wallpapers. The production process for such a large set of wallpapers could take many months and use more than 1,000 hand-cut woodblocks. Made in individual panels, the flexible design can accommodate various arrangements and room shapes. The printer Dufour advertised his wallpaper as both decorative and educational, offering “lessons in history and geography” to his European customers.

E. pluribus unum (after Rembrandt Peale, George Washington)

E. pluribus unum (after Rembrandt Peale, George Washington) by Ray Beldner, after Rembrandt Peale

What determines the value of a work of art?

This collage was created from approximately 250 dollar bills meticulously arranged, folded, and sewn together to re-create a famous portrait by Rembrandt Peale of George Washington. Beldner’s labor-intensive technique consciously plays on the average viewer’s equation of the hours of labor with value in art. His use of the national motto—e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”)—for the title of the work makes witty reference to the creation of this portrait from many dollar-bill portraits.


Portrait by Walt Kuhn

What makes performers intriguing subjects for artists?

Beginning in the 1920s, Kuhn focused on the subject of vaudeville and circus performers—in addition to painting intense, modern portraits of performers, he also worked as a designer and director for vaudeville shows and circus acts. Although the young woman in this portrait is unidentified, it is likely that she was a vaudeville or circus performer—her pink and green leotard and her black ribbon choker resemble the costumes worn by some female entertainers of the period.

Mt. Tamalpais

Mt. Tamalpais by Teikichi Hikoyama

What emotions do these colors inspire?

A reclining female figure rests on Mount Tamalpais, a detail inspired by the legend of a Native American princess who, abandoned by her lover, ascended the mountain. When she died of heartbreak, the mountain assumed the form of her grieving body. Incorrectly attributed to the Coastal Miwok Indians, the story was actually derived from Dan Totheroh’s play Tamalpa, first performed on the mountain in 1921.

Acordada (Caballos y Zapatistas)

Acordada (Caballos y Zapatistas) by José Clemente Orozco

How do color and shape help tell this story?

This painting features a subject from the Mexican Revolution. Here we see a group of men and women who have been taken prisoner and are being herded like cattle by two soldiers, the acordada of the title. The prisoners are followers of Emiliano Zapata, a revolutionary who fought for the political and economic liberation of Mexican peasants. The acordada, paid soldiers employed by various political leaders, often committed war crimes against opposition soldiers and civilians.

Seated Nude

Seated Nude by Guy Pène du Bois

Would you describe this painting as idealized or realistic?

Du Bois’s work is easily recognizable for its stylized, sculptural treatment of the figure, as seen in this painting of a seated nude. The composition’s strength lies in its simplicity, attesting to his belief that the true realist explored what was essential and indefinable about their subject, in his words “a shameless fellow completely unafraid of reality . . . a fellow with eyes to see and a heart to accept and appreciate the contours of his own kind.”


Continuity by Charles Sheeler

What factories have you visited?

In this painting, a few bursts of cobalt and maroon punctuate a pale and ethereal palette. The outlines of factory catwalks and furnaces merge together, forming an intricate pattern of abstract forms—an effect heightened by the silvery, reflective surfaces of pure Plexiglas that Sheeler left at the edges of some of the painted shapes. Although this scene feels quiet and still, it depicts an industrial site that would usually be teeming with noise, energy, and busy workers.