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A near-perfect room of art at the Huntington library

January 18, 2012 |  9:15 am

Huntington Gary Friedman

Have you always wondered why it’s called the Green Umbrella series? What are the five most interesting buildings in Los Angeles area? Is the intermission an endangered species? Culture Monster is kicking off an occasional feature in which the arts critics -- Christopher Knight, Mark Swed, Charles McNulty and Christopher Hawthorne -- will answer a question from readers about their field of expertise.

The above are examples, not necessarily questions that will be addressed. We want to hear your questions. Simply leave yours in the comments section below.

Culture Monster composed the first question for art critic Christopher Knight. 

Q: Do you have a favorite permanent collection gallery at a Los Angeles art museum?

A: These days the Thornton Portrait Gallery at San Marino's Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens makes my jaw drop. The hall was built in 1934 for the Huntington's celebrated collection of full-length British Grand Manner portraits -- most famously Thomas Gainsborough's dazzling exercise in pyrotechnic brushwork,  "Jonathan Buttall: The Blue Boy" (circa 1770). But contemporary snap also now radiates from the picture gallery. These are portraits of the 18th century's 1%, after all, and the paintings were collected by a prime one-percenter in the run-up to the Great Depression (railroad baron and energy tycoon Henry E. Huntington died in 1927). So occupy the Huntington: There's a lot to see.

Think great British art and you think theater, and that applies here. The sitters are actors. One's a pro: Joshua Reynolds painted celebrated stage actress Sarah Siddons enthroned, enacting the stormy character of tragic muse. But Blue Boy and the rest assume roles too, acting as aristocratic inheritors of the classical heights -- as if they lived on Mt. Olympus or in the epic pages of Herodotus and Plutarch.

That's plain old Diana Sackville swooping through the garden in another ravishing Reynolds portrait. But all dolled up as Viscountess Crosbie, she adopts a pointy-toe pose that derives from ancient Greco-Roman scenes of music and dance in the countryside.

And Blue Boy's famous satin costume is the sort of thing that would have been worn 150 years earlier, in the immediate aftermath of Shakespeare, not in 1770s England, just before American upstarts began a revolution. Gainsborough's post-Elizabethan costume choice really casts himself -- an ambitious, fortysomething artist from the provinces -- in the cosmopolitan role of heir to court painter Anthony Van Dyck, who died in 1641.

He's intentionally a showoff with the paint handling. Gainsborough, Reynolds, Thomas Lawrence and the rest used lush, wet color and razzle-dazzle brushwork to visually "perform" the act of painting on canvas. You practically want to applaud.

When the room was built the plan was to evoke London's 18th century Manchester House, now home to the great Wallace Collection. So the 1934 Huntington room is really modern, like a Hollywood "golden age" stage set. The whole mansion was renovated four years ago, and director John Murdoch beautifully played up its theatricality. Wainscotted walls are upholstered in rich green damask. Classical portrait busts alternate with the paintings as a supporting cast. The effect is splendid.

It shows how savvy curatorial installation can create wordless education for a museum's permanent collection. Today the big, skylighted space may be the closest thing to a perfect room of art in an L.A. museum. Murdoch retires in June, and he leaves behind a heck of a legacy.

-- Christopher Knight

Art reviews from the Los Angeles Times.

Photo: Thornton Portrait Gallery at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens; center: Joshua Reynolds, "Diana (Sackville), Viscountess Crosbie," 1777, oil on canvas; Thomas Gainsborough, "Jonathan Buttall: The Blue Boy," circa 1770, oil on canvas. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angles Times