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Review: The Huntington's American art galleries

May 30, 2009 |  5:00 am

Zenobia installed

Today, the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino opens its newly expanded, refurbished and reinstalled galleries of American art. They give new emphasis to the second part of the institution's Anglo American history.

The $1.6-million redesign is part of a larger project unveiled last May, when the beautifully restored historic mansion reopened to display the Huntington collections of European painting, sculpture and decorative arts. The mansion is home to the best Northern Renaissance painting in the Western United Huntington gallery States, a svelte "Madonna and Child" (circa 1460) by Rogier van der Weyden. It's also where you'll find a dazzling full-length Flemish Baroque portrait of a noblewoman by Anthony van Dyck, plus the robust,  larger-than-life mythological bronze of "Diana the Huntress" (1782) by French Neoclassical sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon.

Still, the Huntington will always and forever be identified with British art. (Even Van Dyck worked in London.) Railroad and real estate baron Henry E. Huntington (1850-1927) and his socially determined wife Arabella (1851-1924) -- Henry's widowed aunt by marriage and the putative richest woman in America -- were smitten with England's landed gentry. Like many Gilded Age super-rich, they wanted to identify themselves as the American heirs to European aristocracy -- the Mother Country's privileged New World children.

If Henry and Arabella couldn't actually be a duke and duchess, at the very least they could own Thomas Gainsborough's iconic "Blue Boy" and hang Thomas Lawrence's extravagant "Pinkie" in the parlor. And so they did, building a great country house to hold a celebrated collection of British portraits and much, much more.

They also owned a few American paintings, especially the kind that would connect the United States to England.

A dramatic scene of King Lear with his daughter Cordelia, the moral hero of Shakespeare's play, is by the American expatriate Benjamin West, history painter to King George III. A full-length portrait of Revolutionary War hero George Washington -- wearing military dress and leaning on a cannon after the Battle of Princeton, his horse peeking his head into the scene -- copies a famous picture by Philadelphia's Charles Wilson Peale. Even an inlaid card table by the Franco-American cabinetmaker Charles-Honoré Lannuier connects Gilded Age ideals with royal tastes: He brought a Neo-Classical style of decorative arts favored on the continent to New York in the Federalist period.

After the Huntington opened as a public art gallery, among its first major acquisitions was Gilbert Stuart's 1797 portrait of Washington. It all went together with the library's exceptional collections of British and American literature and manuscripts.

Steele So in the face of the Huntington's largely British artistic identity, the new Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art, opening today, are not really an anomaly. But neither are they quite up to snuff. The 14 handsome rooms combine the former Scott Gallery and the relatively new Erburu Gallery to encompass more than 16,000 square feet of space -- double what was available for American art before. (Robert F. Erburu is retired chairman of Times Mirror Co., former parent of The Times.) The collection, though, doesn't yet warrant all that room.

More than 500 works are on view. Most are decorative arts -- furniture, silver, glass, ceramics, etc. -- plus 122 paintings, 33 sculptures and 14 works on paper. Among the most charming is an 1817 needlepoint sampler by young Anne Moulton, age 10, in which her neatly stitched repetition of the alphabet, plus a row of Roman numerals, is framed by a paradise garden populated by rural farm animals.

Her stitchery includes this prayer: "How blest the Maid, whom circling years improve/ Her God, the object of her warmest love./ Whole useful hours, successive as they glide,/ the Book, the Needle and the Pen, divide." Bible study, handicraft and writing constitute the orderly education of a productive young woman, sewn into precise and tidy stitches.

The sampler is on loan to the museum. So are more than one-quarter of the works on view. (Lenders include private collectors and area museums.) Most of the loans are in decorative arts, consistently the strongest area in the nearly 250-year span of the Huntington presentation.

High-end Paul Revere and Joseph Richardson silver and middle-class Boston and Sandwich glass are at the early end of the chronological decorative spectrum. Frank Lloyd Wright furniture and post-World War II Otis clay by artists Peter Voulkos and Paul Soldner are at the other. In between is the great Arts and Crafts furniture by architects Charles and Henry Greene -- a 1905-06 dining room ensemble from Pasadena's Laurabelle Robinson house.

With exceptions, the paintings are generally weak. In 1979 the Huntington acquired the Virginia Steele Scott Collection, 50 American paintings that formed the basis for the museum's expansion into the field. A mixed bag, its finest works include Frederic Edwin Church's monumental 1864 Ecuadoran landscape, "Chimborazo," a tropical scene of Indian and Spanish Colonial harmony unfolding beneath an almost mystical Andean volcano; and Mary Cassatt's 1897 "Breakfast in Bed," a thoroughly secular Madonna and child in which a mother and her young daughter cuddle amid blue-white clouds of bedding. The collection also has good or quirky examples by Martin Johnson Heade, Elihu Vedder, William Harnett and a few others.

The sculpture is generally modest. Among the curiosities is Paul Manship's wild Art Deco figure of a gilded Salome dancing above the severed head of John the Baptist, resting on a platter on the floor.

The Huntington recently scored a coup with the acquisition of Harriet Hosmer's long-lost monumental 1859 marble, "Zenobia in Chains." Mid-19th century America saw an odd eruption of sculpture on the theme of women in bondage. Hosmer's shows the Syrian queen, captured by Rome's emperor, as a veritable pillar of strength. Zenobia wears her chains like elegant jewelry, a testament to the historical figure's refusal to knuckle under -- and, tellingly, the refusal of a female sculptor, a 19th century rarity, to represent victimhood.

"Zenobia" is handsomely installed near Hosmer's slightly earlier parlor-sculpture of an impish "Puck." The winged Shakespearean elf sits on a magical toadstool. High above is a corner window in the gallery ceiling, designed by the Erburu building's architect, Fred Fisher, to recall the Minimalist 1960s Light-and-Space sculpture of Larry Bell and James Turrell. The collection would benefit from more playful interludes such as this.

American art is generally conceived here according to traditional textbook history -- art starts in New England and Philadelphia, comes to New York and slowly marches across the plains of the mid-West, arriving in California in the 1960s. But that lineage doesn't really apply to the way we think about art anymore.

Major works like "Zenobia" are exceedingly hard to come by too, so prospects aren't good for the development of a first-rate standard representation of American art history. Why not let loose?

Rather than another cartoon-like Thomas Hart Benton from the 1920s, which the Huntington recently acquired, it would be great to see a Henrietta Shore floral, a Modernist pastoral landscape by Charles Reiffel and transcendental abstractions by Raymond Jonson and Agnes Pelton from the same period. These are painters not always encountered in the mainstream storyline. But their best works are better than the routine Ashcan School and Social Realist works found here. The Huntington needs to shake things up.

-- Christopher Knight

Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art, Huntington Library, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Mondays. $15. (626) 405-2100.

Top photo: Harriet Hosmer (1830–1908), "Zenobia in Chains," 1859, marble (center) and "Puck," after 1854, marble (left); Chauncey Butler Ives (1810-94), "Ruth," 1853, marble (right). Credit: Tim Street-Porter / The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

Bottom photo: A mid- to late-20th-century gallery. Credit: Tim Street-Porter / The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens

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