FRAME|WORK: Untitled (Portals of the Past) by Arnold Genthe

FRAME|WORK is a weekly blog series that highlights an artwork in the Museums permanent collections. Today we commemorate the 1906 earthquake and ensuing fire that ravaged the majority of San Francisco. Arnold Genthe’s Untitled (Portals of the Past), a jewel of the Museums’ photography collection, provides a look back at that dark day. This photograph is currently not on display, so please enjoy this exclusive virtual viewing.

Portals of the Past

Arnold Genthe (American, b. Prussia, 1869–1942). Untitled (Portals of the Past), 1906 (printed 1956). Gelatin silver print. Museum purchase, James D. Phelan Bequest Fund. 1943.407.130.2

Genthe frames the destroyed city through the entrance of a palatial home that did not survive the quake. In his book, As I Remember (Reynal & Hitchcock, 1936), Genthe describes the scene that prompted him to take this photograph:

"The ruins of Nob Hill became a rich field for my camera. All that remained standing of the Towne residence on California Street was the marble columned entrance. The picture I made of it by moonlight brought out its classic beauty.”

In Genthe’s haunting description of the ruined streets of San Francisco, he goes on to explain that the columns were later removed from their original site and reinstalled in a cypress grove in Golden Gate Park. There, they found the name by which they are known today—Portals of the Past.

Genthe’s photograph of these pillars ultimately served as the inspiration for a painting by Charles Rollo. Rollo’s painting hung in the Bohemian Club, where he credited Genthe with the subject's original conception—above his own signature, Rollo inscribed, “With thanks to Arnold Genthe.”

On the 50th anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake and fire, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor commissioned Ansel Adams to make new prints from a group of Genthe negatives archived in the museum’s collection. Portals of the Past is one of the Adams prints dating from 1956.

Click here to learn more about the earthquake’s impact on the de Young and the Legion of Honor.