American Art

The de Young’s American art collection, spanning from the 17th century to the present day, is the most comprehensive survey collection of American art in the American West, and is among the top 10 collections nationally that encompass the entire history of non-indigenous American art. The acquisition of the distinguished Rockefeller Collection, along with later gifts and purchases, transformed the American art collection into a true national treasure, as well as a significant cultural and educational resource for both residents and tourists.

The art on view spans four centuries and includes objects created by Native American cultures, subsequent immigrants, enslaved Africans, and their descendants. Many of these cultures clashed over their differing visions of America’s past, present, and future, while also borrowing and sharing ideas from each other. This historical diversity and complexity has led to the creation of many hybrid art objects that are among the defining features of culture in the United States.

The breadth and depth of the American art collection enables visitors to explore many of the most influential developments in American art and history. These objects reflect both the personal visions of the artists and the collective concerns of their communities. The juxtaposition of old objects with newer ones in the galleries is intended to foster a dialogue between the past and the present, and to remind viewers that cultural ideas can transcend the artwork’s time and place of origin.

The Katharine Hanrahan American Art Study Center and the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art microfilm collection are both available to researchers with a specific focus of study by appointment only.

Paintings

The de Young’s holdings of American art include more than 1,000 paintings spanning from the 17th century to the present. The paintings collection commenced during the early years of both the de Young (founded 1895) and the Legion of Honor (founded 1924), and were merged in the first American art galleries at the de Young in 1977. The collection achieved national stature with the acquisition of the John D. Rockefeller III Collection; his 1979 bequest combined with his wife Blanchette’s bequest in 1993 totals 110 paintings, and comprises the Fine Arts Museums’ single most important gift of art. 

The American painting collection includes major works by John Singleton Copley, Thomas Cole, George Caleb Bingham, Frederic E. Church, Albert Bierstadt, George Inness, Mary Cassatt, Thomas Anshutz, William Michael Harnett, Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keeffe, Chiura Obata, John Marin, Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, Edward Hopper, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Richard Diebenkorn, Morris Louis, Larry Rivers, Wayne Thiebaud, and Frank Stella. Of special interest are George Caleb Bingham’s Boatmen on the Missouri (1846), Frederic E. Church’s Rainy Season in the Tropics (1866), Albert Bierstadt’s California Spring (1875), Thomas Anshutz’s Ironworkers’ Noontime (1880), William Michael Harnett’s After the Hunt (1885), and Grant Wood’s Dinner for Threshers (1934).

Sculpture and Decorative Arts

The de Young’s holdings of American art include more than 800 sculptures and 3,000 decorative arts objects spanning from the 17th century to the present. The American sculpture and decorative arts collections formed an integral part of the de Young from its founding in 1895. In the ensuing decades, the focus expanded from historical objects associated with California’s Gold Rush and Mission eras to fine art objects drawn from across the nation. Collection strengths include Spanish Colonial, California Arts and Crafts, and post-World War II studio craft objects.

The American sculpture collection includes major works by Hiram Powers, Frederic Remington, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, David Smith, Isamu Noguchi, Louise Nevelson, Mark di Suvero, Manuel Neri, Stephen De Staebler, Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, Claes Oldenburg, Peter Voulkos, Josiah McElheny, Kiki Smith, and James Turrell. The American decorative arts collection includes objects by Jeremiah Dummer, Paul Revere, Samuel Gragg, Herter Brothers, Frederic Remington, Shreve & Company, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Dirk van Erp, Frank Lloyd Wright, Greene & Greene, and Viktor Schreckengost. Of special interest are the Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden, which includes James Turrell’s “skyspace” Three Gems (2005); fifteen Ruth Asawa sculptures (1950-1978) installed in the de Young tower lobby, and the Herter Brothers' Mantelpiece for Thurlow Lodge (1872-73).

Special Collections

The Dorothy & George Saxe Collection of Contemporary Craft

Since 1981, George and Dorothy Saxe of Menlo Park and San Francisco have formed one of the premier collections of contemporary craft in the United States. The Saxe Collection, containing works in glass, ceramic, wood, fiber, and metal, is distinguished by both its high quality and its depth, with... View More

Here/Now

Weekends with Georgia

Although Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George (previously on view at the de Young in...

Modern Nature Revealed

In this Q&A Timothy Anglin Burgard, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco curator in charge