Casanova’s World Comes to San Francisco

Jan 17, 2018

Painting of nude woman smiling and lying among sheets.

Marc Nattier, Thalia, Muse of Comedy, 1739. Oil on canvas, 53 1/2 × 49 in. (135.9 × 124.5 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, Mildred Anna Williams Collection, 1954.59.

Casanova: The Seduction of Europe
Legion of Honor \ February 10 – May 28, 2018

“Those who have not lived in the eighteenth century, in the years before the revolution, do not know the sweetness of living and cannot imagine what it was like to have happiness in life.” - Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord

SAN FRANCISCO—The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) invite audiences to journey into the world of eighteenth-century Europe with one of its most colorful characters, Giacomo Casanova (Italian, 1725─1798), as guide. Casanova was considered by his own contemporaries to be a witty conversationalist, autobiographer, gambler, spy, and one of the greatest travelers of all time. More than 80 works of art, including paintings, sculptures, works on paper, period furnishings, delicate porcelains, and lavish period costumes, re-create this luxurious and sparkling world of masked balls, palaces, theaters, and operas.

“The cosmopolitan Casanova is a fitting guide to lead our tour of the glittering art capitals of eighteenth-century Europe, from Venice to Constantinople, from Versailles to St. Petersburg,” says Max Hollein, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “He knew the greatest figures of the age, from monarchs like Louis XV of France and Catherine the Great of Russia, to popes, to intellectuals like Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin.”

Visitors are immersed in a visual world of Rococo finery, examining artworks not only as individual pieces but also as combined and cumulative expressions of wealth and prestige. Although often exhibited in isolation, these works are best understood as parts of luxurious environments that also included architecture and interior design. To achieve the effect of eighteenth-century opulence, the exhibition stages several tableaux enlivened by mannequins dressed in period costume and surrounded by paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts.

“This theatrical display of artworks is fitting for Casanova, who was not only the son of an actress but also an occasional theater musician and playwright,” explains Melissa Buron, Director, Art Division for the Fine Arts Museums. “These tableaux show how Casanova lived a life immersed in the many pleasures of art and they feature amorous, mythological, and pastoral scenes by some of the most important painters of the time, including François Boucher, Canaletto, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and William Hogarth.”

Paintings of Venetian masquerades and idealized gods and goddesses cavorting amid swirling clouds are paired with an opulence of decorative arts. These include delicate and playful porcelains from the royal Polish Meissen factory and from as far as China; gilt candelabra and silvered mirrors; and lavish furniture made from silk-embroidered velvet, worked leather, marble, alabaster, and gold.

“Objects like these would have been part of the cumulative display of luxury found in the show palaces of Europe,” says Martin Chapman, Curator-in-Charge of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture for the Fine Arts Museums. “The Legion of Honor houses the magnificent French period room the Salon Doré, which was recently conserved and reinstalled to the delight of our visitors. Casanova brings the eighteenth century to life in just as opulent a fashion.”

These stunning artworks are on loan from institutions including the Musée du Louvre; the National Portrait Gallery, London; the National Gallery of Canada; the National Galleries of Scotland; the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes; and several prominent private collections.

Coinciding with the Carnival of Venice, the exhibition opens in San Francisco on February 10 and is on view through May 28, 2018.

Casanova was organized by a team of curators from the three presenting institutions. In San Francisco, its installation was overseen by Melissa Buron and Kirk Nickel, Assistant Curator of European Paintings. Martin Chapman and Esther Bell (former FAMSF Curator-In-Charge of European Paintings, now at the Clark Art Institute) also gave their expertise. In Fort Worth, Texas, where the exhibition premiered, C. D. Dickerson, now at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, first proposed the exhibition, and George Shackelford, Deputy Director of the Kimbell Art Museum. Frederick Ilchman, Thomas Michie, and their colleagues at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, were responsible for the stewardship of loans and assembly of the exhibition catalogue.

In Detail
A stunning gathering of shimmering cityscapes by Canaletto introduces viewers to the sights and spectacles of cosmopolitan Venice. Canaletto’s views of the Grand Canal, Piazza San Marco, and the Palazzo Ducale are joined by paintings by Tiepolo and Longhi and shown alongside period sculpture and furniture to suggest the extravagant interiors that Casanova encountered in the palaces of La Serenissima.

A child of Venice born into a world of actors and musicians, Casanova held a sophisticated understanding of identity and theatricality. Wherever he traveled, he sought out the company of actors. The following section explores the importance of masquerade in Venetian culture and its wider popularity throughout eighteenth-century Europe. A highlight is the Fine Arts Museums’ own Thalia, Muse of Comedy (1739) by Jean-Marc Nattier. In the painting, Thalia holds a mask in one hand and uses the other to lift a plush velvet curtain and playfully invite us into the world of comedic theater.

Imagined and conceived as a special feature of this exhibition are three tableaux— illustrating a masked interaction in Venice, a lady’s boudoir in Paris, and a dissipated night of cards in London. Each tableau is composed of mannequins in lush velvet and embroidered silk costumes amid period furniture, bringing the visual wealth of Casanova’s world to life.

One of Casanova’s first of many travels abroad was to Paris, where he met with fortuitous circumstances. For the first time in his life, he was truly wealthy and able to afford fashionable quarters and sumptuous artworks to fill them. Paintings, furniture, precious objects, and musical instruments in the following section evoke splendid Parisian interiors. Reunited for the first time in several hundred years is François Boucher’s cycle of six Mythological Scenes featuring the loves of the gods (now in the collections of the Kimbell and Getty). A tableau with mannequins in fashionable robes à la Françoise re-creates a lady’s morning toilette, or the social ritual of getting dressed, accompanied by friends and gossip.

A connoisseur of food, Casanova wrote in great detail about his meals in his memoirs. To highlight the importance of fine dining of the eighteenth century, porcelain and silver have been brought to life in an interactive exhibit called “The Art of Dining.” Through an elaborate overhead video projection, visitors can sit at a “dining table” onto which is projected or “served” a historically accurate, aristocratic three-course feast, using period porcelain and silver pieces.

Casanova also traveled to London, where he had mixed success. Paintings by his Venetian countryman Canaletto set the stage for this act in England. His Westminster Bridge, with the Lord Mayor’s Procession on the Thames (1747) depicts the newly completed Westminster Bridge, an engineering marvel, and at the far right, the recently completed towers of Westminster Abbey. In this section, a tableau—the aftermath of a drunken card game—shows that social interactions were not always genteel.

The exhibition culminates with a gallery devoted to the most intriguing and powerful members of Casanova’s social circles. Throughout his travels, Casanova met or befriended some of the most famous individuals of the eighteenth century. Jean-Antoine Houdon’s bust of Voltaire is joined with Pierre-Étienne Falconet’s Catherine the Great and by portraits of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin. This reunion of philosophers, statesmen, popes, monarchs, and artists in this final gallery reflect Casanova’s great intellect, broad travels, and insatiable ambition. \ @legionofhonor \ #CasanovasEurope

Visiting \ Legion of Honor
Lincoln Park, 100 34th Avenue, San Francisco. Open Tuesdays–Sundays, 9:30 am–5:15 pm. Closed most Mondays. Open select holidays.

For adults, tickets are $28. Discounts for students, youth, and seniors are available. Members and children five and under receive free admission. More information regarding tickets can be found at

Digital Story
With Casanova as your guide, gain entrée into the sensual world of eighteenth-century Europe and explore ideas about identity, love and power.

Exhibition Catalogue
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue that includes twelve essays by prominent scholars illuminating multiple facets of Casanova’s world as reflected in the arts of his time. It provides a fascinating grand tour of Europe conducted by a quintessential figure of the eighteenth century as well as a splendid visual display of the spirit of the age. Hardcover, 344 pages. Available for purchase here.

Audio Tour
Exhibition curators illuminate Casanova’s extraordinary life, career, and travels throughout eighteenth-century Europe. Order with your exhibition tickets (Android of iOS) or rent a player at the museum.

ArtPoint’s Seduction: A Masked Ball \ Saturday, May 12, 2018
ArtPoint’s annual gala and masquerade will feature alluring live performances, dancing, succulent bites, and late-night exhibition viewing. Revel in the anonymity afforded by your finest Venetian mask and black-tie attire. Visit for details.

Exhibition Organization
This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Presenting Sponsors: John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn, Barbro and Bernard Osher, and Diane B. Wilsey. Lead Corporate Sponsor: Bank of America. Curator’s Circle: Barbara A. Wolfe. Additional support is provided by Mrs. George Hopper Fitch and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco oversee the de Young, located in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park. It is the largest public arts institution in San Francisco, and one of the most visited arts institutions in the United States.

The Legion of Honor was inspired by the French pavilion at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 and, like that structure, was modeled after the neoclassical Palais de la Légion d’Honneur, in Paris. The museum, designed by George Applegarth, opened in 1924 on a bluff in Lincoln Park overlooking the Golden Gate. Its holdings span 4,000 years and include European painting, sculpture, and decorative arts; ancient art from the Mediterranean basin; and the largest collection of works on paper in the American West.

Media Contact
Miriam Newcomer, Director of Public Relations \ \ 415.750.3554