The Huntington murals at the Yale University Art Gallery

Editorial Staff Art

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, November/December 2012 |

On a spring morning in April 1926 a crowd stood transfixed on Fifth Avenue and Fifty-Seventh Street, watching a wrecking ball slam into the floors and walls of the Collis P. Huntington mansion (see Fig. 3). Among them was a tall mustachioed man, Archer M. Huntington (1870-1955), who stoically watched the destruction of his parents’ house. The adopted son of railroad magnate Huntington and son of his wife Arabella, Archer, who had his own home uptown, had decided to demolish the house, a fact of life as Gilded Age mansions made way for commerce.1

  • Fig. 11. Triumph of the Dance by Edwin H. Blashfield (1848-1936),  1893-1894, from the ceiling of the white room of the Huntington house. Oil on canvas, 95 inches by 16 feet 1 inch. Yale University Art Gallery, Huntington gift.



  • Fig. 7. Abundance of the Days of the Week by Elihu Vedder (1836-1923), 1893-1894, from the dining room ceiling of the Huntington house. Oil on canvas, 6 by 15 feet. Yale University Art Gallery, Huntington gift. 



  • Fig. 6 Allegorical lunette depicting Urania, Muse of Astronomy (or Architecture) by Henry Siddons Mowbray (1858-1928), 1893-1894, from the main hall of the Huntington house. Each: oil on canvas, 39 ½ by 78 ¾ inches. Yale University Art Gallery, gift of Archer M. Huntington. 



  • Figs. 15 Conservators working on murals of the Muses by Mowbray in the Manoogian Foundation Galleries.



  • Fig. 1. Henry Siddons Mowbray’s lunettes of the Muses have been installed above mid- to late nineteenth-century American paintings in this room of the Richard and Jane Manoogian Foundation Galleries of American Paintings and Sculpture in the renovated Street Hall building of the Yale University Art Gallery.




  • Fig. 10. Dea Fortuna Resta Con Noi by Vedder, 1893-1894. Oil on canvas, 30 ¾ by 58 ¾ inches. Yale University Art Gallery, Huntington gift.



  • Dea Fortuna Resta Con Noi by Vedder, 1893-1894, installed in the Manoogian Foundation Galleries. 

He had saved as much as he could, including more than thirty murals by four important American painters-Edwin Howland Blashfield, Francis Lathrop, H. Siddons Mowbray, and Elihu Vedder-and donated them, along with French furniture and other decorative objects, to Yale University, which had granted him an honorary master’s degree in 1897.2 After lying in storage for nearly a cen­tury, the Yale University Art Gallery, as part of its multiyear renovation, has reinstalled many of the murals in Street Hall, the first art gallery on a university campus, designed by P. B. Wight and dating from the late 1860s.3 Two of the largest murals, ceilings by Blashfield and Vedder, have found new homes in the ceiling of the Gilded Age Gallery on the first floor. On the second floor, at the entrance to the paintings galleries, are eight gold-ground lunettes by Vedder that formerly graced the Huntington dining room, while additional panels by Vedder and Mowbray are above the cornice line in the nineteenth-century  paintings gallery. Slated for future conservation are a Lathrop ceiling and more paintings by Mowbray and Blashfield.

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.

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.

For the main hall of the Huntington house, Mowbray created lunettes inserted in the entablature above the second-floor balcony, which was supported by marble columns with Corinthian capitals and surmounted by a richly embellished coved ceiling. Each lunette contained a vividly rendered image of one of the Muses, repeating the theme developed by Bitter in the hallway. Of all the recently restored Huntington murals, these lunettes, with their commanding female figures and fresh bright colors, come as a revelation (see Figs. 6a-6g). In addition, their complex iconography reveals the artist’s inventiveness. Only six of the Muses can be fully identified through their symbols; the other three seem to be of Mowbray’s devising. For instance, while Erato, or Lyric and Love Poetry, holds her traditional lyre, Science and Electricity holds a light bulb with a long cord powered by electricity generated from an electrolyte solution in a glass jar-a device known as a Leyden (or Leiden) jar invented in the eighteenth century.

A parlor was to the right of the entrance vestibule in the mansion’s northwest corner. With white marble floors and ivory and gold paneling furnished by the decorating firm of William Baumgarten and Company, it became known as the White room (Fig. 12).13 Blashfield was invited to create paintings for the ceiling, walls, and overdoors, the largest of which is the ceiling panel titled Triumph of the Dance (Fig. 11). Unlike his more sober later work for public buildings such as the Library of Congress and numerous state capitols, here Blashfield freely rendered nude and semi-clothed figures disporting themselves on a light gauzy field of blues and grays. Together with the overdoor and two vertical wall panels, The Archer and The Nymph, it helped make the room one of the most charming and intimate in the house.

The largest room, the salon, was on the east side of the house, separated from the main structure by a gallery and porte cochere. The richly decorated room was dominated by an eleven-foot-long octagonal ceiling panel by Francis Lathrop called The Wheel of Fortune (Fig. 13) in which nude and seminude figures float together with emblems of the zodiac.14 Of the four artists, Lathrop is the least well known. Yet during the 1880s he was regarded as an important decorative artist, one who could offer advice and technical assistance on the overall decor of a building.15 He had trained in England, where he studied and worked with the Pre-Raphaelite artists Ford Maddox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones-experiences and training that prepared him, after his return to the United States, to serve as John La Farge’s chief assistant for the chancel of Trinity Church. In the 1884 Art Year Book he was mentioned as “one of the few American painters who have won a deserved reputation in the higher departments of decoration. As a decorative artist he stands at the head of his profession,”16 meaning that he could both create architectural decoration-stained glass and mural painting-and supervise the installation and coordination of such decor. At the time of the Huntington commission Lathrop was also at work across the street on the expansion and renovation of Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s mansion, replacing La Farge whose design studio had gone bankrupt. He assumed a similar role for the Huntington mansion where, in addition to creating a mural and stained glass, he oversaw much of the decorative work.17

Between the salon and the vestibule was the dining room (Fig. 9), the north windows of which faced East Fifty-Seventh Street. Its decor included a carved and inlaid Sienese marble fireplace designed by Post and an elegant carved wood buffet by William Baumgarten and Company, which stood beneath a magnificent Gobelins tapestry. For this room Vedder was charged with creating a number of panels, including a large ceiling painting titled Abundance of the Days of the Week (Fig. 7), set in a coffered frame of gilded plaster designed by Lathrop (see Fig. 8). Vedder also painted eight gold-ground lunettes that were placed above the cornice line, and a larger lunette called Dea Fortuna, Resta con Noi (Goddess of Fortune Stay with Us) for the fireplace mantel (Fig. 10).

The most important of the Huntington murals is Vedder’s ceiling panel, a complex design picked out in gold, deep blue, browns, and reds that has the appearance of an elaborate carpet. In the center is a large circle dominated by the standing figure of Apollo, or Sunday, who is surrounded by female personifications of the seasons. Attached to the frame of Apollo’s circle are four colophons with Arabella and Collis’s monograms, which serve to connect the central field to adjoining segments of circles-three on each end-that enclose representations of the other days.18

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.

1 In his will of 1897, Collis Huntington bequeathed the ownership of the mansion to Yale University, with life interest in the property to Arabella and then Archer. “After her death, Archer declined to take up his life interest; thus, it was necessary quickly to carry out Collis’s donations”; see Shelley M. Bennett, The Art of Wealth: The Huntingtons in the Gilded Age (Huntington Library Press, San Marino, Calif., forthcoming Spring 2013). Tiffany and Company now occupies the former Huntington house site.  2 “French Eighteenth Century Furniture,” Bulletin of the Associates in Fine Arts at Yale University, December 1926, pp. 35-40.  3 Conservation of the Huntington/Yale murals was made possible by a grant from the Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation.  4 Russell Sturgis, “A Review of the Work of George B. Post,” Great American Architects Series, no. 4, Architectural Record (June 1898), p. 83.  5 Arabella has been thought to have been born in Richmond, Virginia, but Caroline [Carrie] Campbell, Arabella’s longtime companion, wrote to Albert Crutcher of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher in February 1929 that she was born “near Union Springs, Alabama” (Archer M. Huntington 1929 letters, Hispanic Society of America, New York; as cited in Bennett, The Art of Wealth: The Huntingtons in the Gilded Age). According to Bennett, Arabella was born June 1, 1850, and died September 14, 1924. “Very little is known about her early years. She was the third of five children of Catherine Simms Maddox and Richard Milton Yarrington, a machinist. Arabella’s middle name, Duvall, was the maiden name of her father’s mother” (Bennett, “The Mysterious Arabella D. Huntington and her Passion for Collecting,” in Power Underestimated: American Women Art Collectors, ed. Inge Reist and Rosella Mamoli Zorzi [Marsilio, Venice, 2011], p. 104).  6  James T. Maher, who undertook painstaking research to establish the legitimacy of Arabella’s relationship to Worsham concludes that they were never married; see his The Twilight of Splendor: Chronicles of the Age of American Palaces (Little Brown, Boston, 1975), pp. 254-257. Shelley Bennett, too, calls Huntington her first husband and asserts that Arabella “fabricated a marriage to John M. Worsham before the birth of her son, Archer, in 1870” (“The Mysterious Arabella D. Huntington and her Passion for Collecting,” pp. 104-105).  7 The bedroom and dressing room are now, respectively, in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Moorish smoking room is at the Brooklyn Museum. Shelley Bennett concluded that even before Arabella began to work with George B. Post on the Huntington mansion, she bought and furnished eight residences, seven in New York and one in San Francisco. After Collis’s death, when she was declared the richest woman in America, she successively bought and furnished three houses in Paris. After her marriage to Henry H. Huntington in 1913, at age sixty-three, she worked with him and Joseph Duveen on the furnishing of what is today the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. See Shelley M. Bennett, “Henry and Arabella Huntington: The Staging of Eighteenth-Century French Art by Twentieth-Century Americans,” in French Art of the Eighteenth-Century at the Huntington (Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2008), pp. 1-27.  8 The Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion at 1 West Fifty-Seventh Street was built by Post between 1879 and 1882, and enlarged by Post and Richard Morris Hunt in 1892. It was demolished in 1927, a year after the Huntington mansion came down. 
9 Sturgis, “A Review of the Work of George B. Post,” p. 83.  10 H. Siddons Mowbray Mural Painter 1858-1928 (privately printed by Florence Millard Mowbray, 1928), p. 56.  11 For information on the hiring of the Huntington muralists see Bennett, The Art of Wealth: The Huntingtons in the Gilded Age, chap. 2. I remain grateful to Bennett for sharing this important information, which she uncovered in the Collis P. Huntington archives at Syracuse University, microfilm series I, reel 50.  12 The building had one double-domed entrance at each corner. Two painters were assigned to each entryway: J. Alden Weir and Robert Reid; Edward Simmons and Kenyon Cox; J. Carroll Beckwith and Walter Shirlaw; Charles S. Reinhart and Edwin Blashfield. In addition there were two tympana in both the south and north pavilions (two entryways positioned midway along the building’s long sides). Gari Melchers and Walter MacEwen were responsible for the decoration of the south pavilion; Francis Davis Millet and Lawrence Earle, for the north. My thanks to Professor Bailey Van Hook for her help in tracking down this information.  13 Archer wrote to Henry E. Huntington (his cousin and his mother’s second husband): “Yale University decided that they would like to place the White room in their Museum and I gave them the whole of its woodwork decorations and the ceiling paintings together with the furniture to make it a complete unit,” Archer Huntington, Letters, October 26, 1926, Hispanic Society of America, New York.  14 For the title, see Paintings and Studio Property of the late Francis Lathrop of New York City, Anderson Galleries, New York, April 4-6, 1911, Lot 17. 
15 Lathrop’s role in supervising the interior decoration of the Huntington mansion is detailed in Isabelle Hyman, “The Huntington Mansion in New York: Economics of Architecture and Decoration in the 1890s,” Courier/Syracuse University Library Associates, vol. 25, no. 2 (Fall 1990), pp. 3-29.  16 “American Art,” Art Year Book (Boston, 1884), n. p. 
17 Lathrop also formed a lasting attachment to the Huntington family. He vacationed with them in the Adirondacks, attended Collis’s funeral in 1900, and was a member of the board of the Hispanic Society, which Archer formed in 1904 and where Lathrop painted a frieze of portrait medallions c. 1906.  18 For further information on Vedder’s Huntington mural see Ann Jensen Adams, “Elihu Vedder at Yale: a Ceiling for Collis P. Huntington,” 1976, Yale University Art Gallery archives; and Murray, “The Art of Decoration,” pp. 205-210.