These Gilded Age murals, done at the dawn of the American mural painting movement, are an important addition to Yale's holdings in American art. The rich interior decor of the Huntington mansion represents the culminating phase of a concept of decoration rooted in the aesthetic movement, which in the 1890s was inflected by the classicism of the Italian Renaissance and the French Beaux-Arts. First introduced in a public building by H. H. Richardson and John La Farge at Trinity Church, Boston (1877), this ambition to integrate the fine and decorative arts was practiced by the leading artists, sculptors, architects, and designers of the day. In private houses such opulent settings often served as the backdrop for extraordinary collections, first of European academic and Barbizon paintings and, after the turn of the century, of Old Masters. All of these trends were represented in the design and decoration of the Huntington mansion. As noted by the prominent architectural critic of the day Russell Sturgis, "no interior of modern times seems more harmonious, more appropriate and rational as well as sumptuous in its ornamentation" than the Huntington house.4
The design and decor of such a lavish home was made possible by the fortune Collis had amassed as a member of the California syndicate that created the Central Pacific Railroad. Huntington managed the firm's affairs in New YorkCity, where in the early 1870s he took a mistress, Arabella Duval (Yarrington) Worsham. As best as can be determined she was born near Union Springs, Alabama in 1850,5 and spent her youth and Civil War years in Richmond. At the end of the war, with the city in flames, she and her mother fled to New York and settled in lower Manhattan. When Arabella was nineteen she became pregnant with her first and only child, Archer Milton Worsham, whose putative father, John Archer Worsham, had returned to Richmond to live with his wife, Annette.6
It was at this point that Huntington offered Arabella, her mother, and her young son housing at 109 Lexington Avenue, a property he had recently bought. Conveniently, it was just a few blocks south of where he lived with his first wife, Elizabeth T. Stoddard. Over the next ten years Arabella was occupied with her son's upbringing while participating in the extraordinary transformation taking place on FifthAvenue as mansions began their march uptown. Presumably with access to Huntington's millions, she began to buy properties, first at 68 East Fifty-Fourth Street in 1872, which she sold in 1877, and then 4 West Fifty-Fourth. Here she decorated a house that was later purchased by John D. Rockefeller; three of its rooms survive in museum collections, remarkable examples of the American aesthetic movement that serve as dramatic evidence of Arabella's taste and refinement.7 Her commanding personality was captured in a full-length portrait (Fig. 4) by the renowned French painter Alexandre Cabanel in 1882, when she and twelve-year-old Archer were in Europe
Not long after Arabella's return, Elizabeth Huntington died, and Collis and Arabella were married in 1884. Emulating other fabulously wealthy New Yorkers, in 1889 they bought a choice piece of property on the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-Seventh Street on which to erect a mansion. They had hoped to hire Richard Morris Hunt, the favored architect of Alva S. Vanderbilt (Mrs. William Kissam Vanderbilt); but Hunt was in Europe and they were impatient and hired instead Hunt's most distinguished pupil, George B. Post, who was then renovating and expanding Cornelius Vanderbilt II's house across the street.8 No doubt the example of the Vanderbilts and Post's encouragement were influential in the Huntingtons' decision to fill their house with marble, stained glass, tapestries, and mural paintings. The Vanderbilts had hired French muralists, but to the Huntingtons' credit they commissioned Americans.