The Huntington murals at the Yale University Art Gallery

Bulky rusticated masonry blocks formed the exterior of the Huntington mansion and gave the building a forbidding, almost fortress-like appearance (Fig. 2). Inside it was a different story. One entered through a wide arched doorway into a vestibule that led to an entrance hall, beyond which was the main hall, where the Huntingtons' most important pictures were hung (Fig. 5). It was an impressive room, four stories high with a skylight above. The walls of the lower story were faced with red Lake Champlain marble, an unusual surface on which to hang paintings but one endorsed by Sturgis, who wrote that it "afforded an admirable background."9 Above the paintings ran Karl Bitter's carved marble frieze in which cherubs frolicked in twelve miniature landscapes that each bore the symbols of a given month. Bitter, who had earlier assisted Hunt in the decoration of William K. Vanderbilt's Marble House (1888-1892) in Newport, was also hired by the Huntingtons to carve a mantel for the library and nine panels for the first floor corridor, each with a figure of one of the nine Muses. Above these panels were lunettes by Mowbray that illustrated the myth of Ceres and Proserpine.

In June 1892, just before he was to leave for Europe, Mowbray had received an invitation from the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to join him for lunch at New York's Players Club.10 Here Saint-Gaudens introduced him to Post, who straightaway offered him commissions for paintings for the corridor and main hall of Huntington's house. Saint-Gaudens had worked with Post on the decoration of the Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion and, in addition to being one the country's most sought-after sculptors, was a respected tastemaker who had collaborated with the painter John La Farge and the architects Stanford White and Charles McKim. Mowbray, being the first painter selected, recommended, in consultation with Saint-Gaudens, Thomas Wilmer Dewing and Vedder. Dewing may have been too busy with his work for his new patron, the Detroit industrialist Charles Lang Freer, and the commission for paintings for the salon went instead to Lathrop. Blashfield, meanwhile, was invited when the popular French muralist François Flameng was either unavailable or too expensive.11 Mowbray had known Blashfield in Paris when both were studying with Léon Bonnat, a leading portraitist and mural painter. At the time Bonnat was supervising two important public mural commissions for the Panthéon and for the newly restored Hôtel de Ville (Paris's City Hall) and it can be assumed that both Blashfield and Mowbray knew these projects firsthand.

Post's commitment to mural painting was a given. The same year he hired the four muralists for the Huntington mansion, he employed twelve painters to create murals for his massive Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building at Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.12 It was at the fair that the art of American mural painting was first introduced to a massive public audience.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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