Although he lived in Rome, Vedder exhibited his work regularly in the United States and over the years won wide critical acceptance for his mysterious symbolic paintings with mythological subjects often cast in spaces that had no familiar locus. In the 1880s he made several trips to New York where he pursued his interest in the graphic and decorative arts through designs for Christmas cards, stained glass (mostly for Louis Comfort Tiffany), ceramic tiles, and book and magazine illustrations. His best-known effort was his illustrations for The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in 1884.
Some of the fatalism found in the Rubáiyát is also contained in Vedder's Huntington lunette above the fireplace. Here Fortune has just alighted in a swirl of clouds on a narrow balcony holding her wheel. Seemingly, she is invited by a young genie to sit on a low gilded throne. Behind her is a second youth, who, to ensure her constancy, secures her wheel of chance to a nearby column.
Vedder's Huntington murals, with their references to the Muses, days of the week, the seasons, and the zodiac, symbolize the comings and goings of the house's inhabitants, and, as such, are appropriate for a domestic space, albeit one on a grand scale. They are also of a piece with the other murals, many of which contain similar mythological and astrological allusions.
Most of all, the Huntington canvases are glorious examples of the early history of American mural painting. Even without the sumptuous marble and gilded surfaces, tapestries, and stained glass of their original environment, the new Yale University Art Gallery installation of the Huntington murals is a critical aid in the reconstruction of a little known but important part of our cultural history.
I want to thank Shelley Bennett, senior research associate at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, for sharing images of the Huntington mansion and contributing invaluable information on the family. I also thank John O'Neill, curator of manuscripts and rare books at the Hispanic Society of America, for his help in securing archival photographs of the Huntington mansion interior, and Susan Kriete, of the Department of Photographs, and Architectural Collections, New-York Historical Society, for her kind assistance. My appreciation, too, goes to Helen A. Cooper, the Holcombe T. Green Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, Yale University Art Gallery, for allowing access to the Huntington murals while under conservation; to Amy Torbert, Marcia Brady Tucker Fellow in American Paintings and Sculpture for her invaluable help in assembling and securing images of the murals; and to John Ffrench for his assistance in obtaining new photography.
Sally Webster is a prefessor emerita in the history of art at Lehman College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.