Museo Italo Americano presents works of Rinaldo, Cyrus, and Egisto Cuneo
Now through September 27th

Sentinel Fine Arts Writer
Judith Kahn © 2009
Photo by Zoe Christopher

The Museo Italo Americana is completing its thirtieth year. To commemorate this achievement, a large portion of its exhibits and lectures are focusing on the experiences of Italian immigrants who came primarily to the West Coast and particularly to Northern California. The present exhibit, Cuneo: A Family of Early California Artists, is both stunning and interesting from an historic perspective.  It is the first time that the work of these three accomplished painters and brothers have been exhibited together:  Rinaldo, Cyrus, and Egisto Cuneo.   Each of the displays is accompanied by a narrative which gives you a brief synopsis of the brothers’ illustrious careers.  The Cuneo exhibit is a part of the museum’s year-long programming, celebrating Italian immigration. The Cuneo family was among the first five hundred Italian families to live in San Francisco and supported the arts during a period of economic difficulty.

Oil on canvas. Egisto Cuneo

The Cuneo Early Artisits exhibit is unique for several reasons: This is the first time that all three of the brothers’ work has been exhibited together. In the exhibit there are pieces of Rinaldo’s work which are being displayed for the first time since his death in 1939. It is unusual to have so much talent to flow through a family and to see how each of the brothers, all accomplished painters, use other mediums to successfully express their artistic talent.

Nude Model, Kit Kat Club New York. Egisto Cuneo. Oil, 1920

For example, Egisto not only painted but did etchings and taught himself photography which he used to document Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown and North Beach. Ironically, the curator of this exhibit also has the last name of Cuneo and her ancestors also came from a small Ligurian town near Chiavari. She said that many Cuneos came from this region of Italy.  She remarked that it is serendipitous for her to be part of this exhibit, “where 150 years later my own personal family history has collided with this exhibit while simultaneously our core mission at the Museo is to sustain and promote Italian American History.”

Each of the brothers had a deep passion for art and became prominent artists in their own right. Each studied at  prestigious art schools in San Francisco, Paris and London.  One  can see the brushstrokes of the French Impressionists in many of their paintings. Once completing their studies in Europe, Egisto and Rinaldo returned to California.  However, Cyrus Cuneo, the most gregarious of the brothers, took a different direction and lived his adult life as an expatriate in England.  Here he became a prominent illustrator after completing his four years of studies at the Academia Colarossi.  He was an illustrator for such well-known magazines as London News and was a member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters in London and covered such significant events as the death of King Edward VII in 1910.

STORM MOUNTAINS. Rinaldo Cuneo. Oil on canvas, c. 1930

Rinaldo was known as The Painter of San Francisco. In his early paintings of California landscapes, his brushwork is similar to that of the French Impressionists.  Some of  his paintings  depict the rugged hills of Northern California, the coastline of Marin County, and  the bridges of San Anselmo. In all of his paintings, he captured the beauty of  these sites magnificently. Despite the popularity of his art, he needed other income to make a living so he worked at the Crowley Launch and Tugboat Company. The busy life of the waterfront soon became one of his favorite subjects. Rinaldo has the distinction of  becoming one of the first to utilize the format of a decorative screen. In this exhibit one of his screens is displayed. The museum takes great pride in this since only a handful of these three-and five-paneled screens now exists.  In one fanciful three-panel decorative screen he creates an illusion – that you are looking out a window looking onto a landscape. The  painted hills in the landscape are transformed into a figure of a reclining female nude. The trees are playful and have some resemblance of palm trees but clearly are not. Often the subjects in his paintings are whimsical.  One of Rinaldo’s favorite subjects was the glowing lights of the Worlds Fair at Treasure Island. This was the subject of one of his last paintings before he died in 1939 during the World’s Fair.  Rinaldo was a versatile artist. He was commissioned by the Public Works of Art to paint two murals of the Bay Area in 1934. These are located in the foyer of the Coit Tower.  Rinaldo’s style was evolving  and ever changing. His early works reflected the influence of soft pastel palette.  Later, while living in Northern California, he explored the dynamic earth patterns of the hills, the rural farms and the rooftops of the city skyline. Some of his paintings were more tonal, others more defined and at other times he  mirrored  the brushstrokes of the French impressionists. No matter which style he chose, his work was dynamic.  Despite the fact that Rinaldo had a successful exhibition history, he also was affected by the economic depression.  According to Herb Caen, his wife discovered “more than one hundred unseen paintings in his studio – in corners, in trunks, under books, some even hanging turned to the wall by the artist”. After his death these works were shown at prominent museums in San Francisco: the San Francisco Museum of Art (1940), the De Young Museum (1949) and the Gallery of Fine Arts in San Francisco (1961).

SELF PORTRAIT. Rinaldo Cuneo (1877–1939)

Cyrus Cuneo (1879-1916), known to his friends as Ciro, had a dynamic personality.  He  set his eye on Europe at a early age. He saved the prize money that he had won as a fly weight boxing champion at the Olympic Club in San Francisco to travel to Paris to study at the Academia Colarossi for nearly four years. He paid for his boxing and for his training by teaching boxing in the Latin Quarter.  He became the head student at the Academy of the Victorian with master James McNeil Whistler. Unlike his brothers, he choose to live his life as an expatriate.  He worked as a professional illustrator for magazines and novels.  He was the illustrator for London News and covered the death of King Edward VII in 1910 and the Coronation of George V. He produced a series of celebrity portraits from 1908 – 1911. He was a member of the Royal Academy and a member of the Royal  Institute of Oil Painters in London from 1905 to 1912. His son, Terrence, carried on in his footsteps.

THE FARM. Rinaldo Cuneo. Oil on canvas, c. 1930

In the exhibit there is a replica of the original statue erected of Terrence Cuneo outside of the Waterloo Station in London . The statue was erected for Terrence in honor of his most favored subject matter: trains and railways. Terrence Cuneo, like his father, became a celebrated painter and noted illustrator in England.  He was noted for his many portraits of Queen Elizabeth and the British  military and railways. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of Cyrus’ artwork represented in this exhibit because much of his work was destroyed during WWII.  What is on view showcases Cyrus’ sweeping brushstrokes and Impressionist-style subject matter.

Egisto Cuneo (1890-1972) was the youngest brother in the family and worked in different mediums.  After studying in Europe, he continued his formal studies of etching and oil paintings in Greenwich Village, New York  under the well-known artist John Sloan. Many of the oil paintings seen in this exhibit depict scenes of his wife, children, and neighbors around the family’s home as well as landscapes of Pearl River, New York,  where he lived for a short time. There is one depicting his wife bathing his son.  His son depicted in the picture is now 90 and has came to the gallery and taken much pleasure in viewing his father’s work.  Many of Egisto’s  paintings are reflective of the style seen in the paintings of Cézanne and Mary Cassatt.  When the Great Depression occurred in 1931 Egisto returned to San Francisco from Pearl River with his family to live in his childhood home in North Beach. He abandoned his artistic career and went into real estate.

This interesting exhibit will be held through September 27th.  The Museo Italo Americano is located Fort Manson Building C.  It is open Tuesday through Sunday,
noon to 4:00 pm.  Besides getting a glimpse of early California  landscape, it is interesting to see the different directions the three brothers took each using various mediums to effectively express their artistic talent. For more information visit: Museo Italo Americano  

Coming to The Museo Italo Americano:
October 15, 2009 – From Italy to California – In Cerca di Una Nuova Vita, Italian Immigration: 1870 – Today, which will document the three main periods of Italian immigration:
1850 to 1924 – Mass immigration of impoverished Italians leaving their poor country
1950 to 1970 – Immigration severely restricted by the U.S. anti immigration act of 1924. Mainly middle class immigrants with ties to the U.S. who left a country destroyed by World War II.
1970 to Today – An ongoing immigration of selected scientists and entrepreneurs. This section of the exhibit will be presented in interactive mode.

This exhibit should also prove to be of interest and is in keeping with the mission of the museo to sustain and promote Italian American history.


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Judith Kahn is an author, radio producer, walking tour guide and teacher who has been featured in Who’s Who in California. She has written numerous articles about the San Francisco Bay Area, its restaurants, events, culture, and history.

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Following the success of the walking tours she wrote and produced the weekly radio show “San Francisco Underfoot” sponsored by KALW. The show covered unique San Francisco happenings and the backstage stories of community events. Ms. Kahn has written articles for San Francisco Focus, Travel Age West, World Airways Inflight Magazine and Inside San Francisco. She is currently working as a features-reporter for the Richmond Review, Sunset Beacon, and is the fine arts writer for the San Francisco Sentinel. Ms. Kahn works and writes in San Francisco.

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