Lost Fresco From 1930 Uncovered at San Francisco Art Institute

Lost Fresco From 1930 Uncovered at San Francisco Art Institute


Like something out of a Nick Cage movie, the San Francisco Art Institute has just uncovered a fresco, by a San Francisco artist, that had been lost and forgotten for the past 85 years.

While inspecting one of the institute's older buildings, located at 800 Chestnut Street, SFAI director of operations Heather Hickman Holland noticed some spider webs in the corner of one hallway. But upon further inspection, she and her colleague Jeff Gunderson discovered something marvelous: There, untouched since 1930, was Marble Workers, a mural depicting laborers at Fisherman’s Wharf, by SF painter Frederick Olmsted. 

(Marble Workers, by Frederick Olmsted)

Bay Area art buffs have likely heard of Olmsted: Himself a student of SFAI (back then called the California School of Fine Arts, run by legendary local artist Ralph Stackpole), Olmsted was among a group of artists (including Victor Arnautoff, Ray Boynton, and Stackpole himself) who were interested in social realism.

That movement, aimed at depicting the plight of the poor and working class, took hold during the Great Depression, a time when, under the New Deal, artists like Olmsted and Stackpole were frequently hired by the Works Progress Administration. Among these commissions: the iconic murals at Coit Tower. Olmsted created the three-foot panel, Power, at the tower's main entrance. 

While the full mural is being uncovered just inches at a time, a portion of a $75,000 grant from the Historic Preservation Fund Committee will allow SFAI to assess the condition of its lost frescos and develop a plan to preserve them as San Francisco treasures. Others have been restored over the years, including Co-ed Plein Air Painting with Instructor Gottardo Piazzoni, by Marjorie Eakin (1936); and Life Drawing Class, by Eleanor Bates Streloff (1937). The school hopes the recovery of these painting will provide a clearer picture of the West Coast muralist movement.

(Life Drawing Class, by Eleanor Bates Streloff)

Conservators restoring Plein Air Painting with Instructor Gottardo Piazzo, Marjorie Eakin. (Photo courtesy of SFAI.)

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