No less than Henry Van Dyke, a professor of English literature at Princeton University, called “The Mission Play” by John Steven McGroarty “the greatest of all the world’s pageant dramas.”

The three-hour extravaganza played in Southern California for 20 years, starting in 1911, attracting more than 2.5 million people with the slogan, “If you haven’t been to see the Mission Play, you haven’t seen California.”

It’s unlikely anyone will call Guy Rose’s “The Leading Lady” — a portrait of Lucretia del Valle in her role as Doña Josefa Yorba in “The Mission Play” — the greatest of all the world’s paintings, but it did win the gold medal at San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition in 1915, which marks the inauguration of Balboa Park.

Now, Rose’s “The Leading Lady” has found an honored place at Balboa Park’s San Diego History Center, which put the life-size, 70-inch-by-60-inch portrait on display this week. William C. Foxley, a well-known collector who owned a house in San Diego for nearly 20 years, donated the painting.

“We’re thrilled to have it,” said David Kahn, the center’s executive director. “It documents part of the story of the Exposition of 1915-1916. We’re displaying it now, but it will also be displayed in 2015, when we do an exhibit for Centennial.”

Foxley and the center declined to disclose the painting’s appraised value, instead pointing to a 2005 Sotheby’s auction where a smaller Rose painting, “Owens River, Sierra Nevada, California,” sold for $1,920,000, setting a record for a work by a California impressionist painter.

However, as UCSD Professor Emeritus Bram Dijkstra points out, Rose’s landscapes, not his earlier portraits, are his most characteristic, plein-air, pieces. And “The Leading Lady” is not among Rose’s best paintings.

“It’s really not a great work. But it’s historically interesting, and it’s of a period that is absolutely essential in the development of San Diego,” said Dijkstra, a curator, collector and historian who has frequently written about 20th-century California art. “We often look at paintings as having to be great masterpieces that take our breath away, but they are often as important as aspects of the historical development of a culture.”

“The Leading Lady” is not only significant for its relationship to the 1915 Exhibition, but for the actress it portrays, Lucretia del Valle. She was a descendant of Fernando Villa, who came to California with the founder of the California missions, Junipero Serra. Her father, Reginaldo del Valle, was owner of Rancho Camulos near Los Angeles and a California state senator.

As much as del Valle’s connections, however, Kahn is interested in the period the painting depicts and the way it depicts it.

“This painting is yet another document in this fascination in Southern California for a kind of mythic Spanish heritage,” Kahn said. “There were Spaniards here, but I think at the time things got cleaned up a little and idealized. I’m sure these people were mostly hardscrabble farmers, soldiers and this sort of thing. They weren’t sashaying around in fancy clothes like this lady is wearing in the painting.”

“The Leading Lady” was painted soon after Rose, who was born in San Gabriel, returned to California in 1914 following an extended stay in France. Living in Giverny, he came under the influence of Monet and learned to paint in the “impressionist” manner that is characteristic of his landscapes and is largely responsible for his reputation as one of the leading California impressionists.

The painting was among 64 shown in “Guy Rose, American Impressionist” at the Irvine Museum in 1995 and was later purchased by Foxley, who made his fortune as a cattleman and has amassed an impressive collection of Western-themed and plein-air art. Several pieces from his collection were exhibited in the San Diego Museum of Art’s 2006 show “Personal Views: Regarding Private Collections in San Diego.” (Dijkstra was also among the collectors represented in the exhibit.)

Still, Foxley has directed his attention toward the History Center, also donating a Donal Hord bronze (“Summer Rain”) in 2009. “I thought it was a nice institution,” Foxley said. “And I thought of any of them in the city, it would be the place for this picture to go.”

The History Center has a collection of roughly 200 paintings and “several hundred” additional drawings, Kahn said. It is in talks with the San Diego Unified School District to house some of the districts’ more valuable and historically significant artworks.

“We have a different criteria (than an art museum) for collecting,” said Kahn, although he noted that the center will collaborate in 2012 with the San Diego Museum of Art in an exhibition celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of San Diego artist Charles Reiffel. “Typically, we’re more interested in what’s represented in the art than the art per se.”

And what are we to make of the way “The Leading Lady” represents 1915 California? “History changes over time,” Kahn said. “We can all be inventive about what we see looking back. When we get to that exhibition in 2015, we’ll try to point that out.”