July / August 2014
A Visual and Intellectual Feast
Henry and Arabella Huntington had a passion for European art, in part because it was a fashionable thing to collect at the turn of the 20th century. Newly rich American businessmen spent their fortunes building huge homes and filling them with European artworks, perhaps to partake of the cultural heritage and social prestige their own young nation lacked. But the Huntingtons didn’t dismiss American art. They purchased presidential portraits and works by John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West, and Arabella is known to have had a fondness for American Impressionist Mary Cassatt.
But it wasn’t until 1979, when we received 50 paintings from the Virginia Steele Scott Foundation, that our American art collecting took off. We haven’t looked back since. The Virginia Steele Scott Gallery of American Art opened in 1984, and Mary Cassatt’s Breakfast in Bed and Edward Hopper’s The Long Leg quickly became Huntington icons. Then, in 2005, we added the Lois and Robert F. Erburu Gallery, expanding the American art display space by about 7,500 square feet. As our collection has continued to grow, so has our need for gallery space, and so this July we will open an expanded installation of American art in space that was once used for storage—space that most recently housed the temporary exhibition on Junípero Serra. This latest expansion represents a huge step forward for us and solidifies The Huntington’s position among the most important collections of American art west of the Mississippi.
We view The Huntington’s art collections as a means of providing a visual narrative through history. Yes, the works are stunning and provocative in and of themselves, but as we have evolved our collections we’ve filled important historical gaps so that we can help tell stories about what has happened over time—both in art movements and in society more generally. Take, for example, The Locomotive by Reginald Marsh and The Breaker Boys by George Luks. Both works depict the impact of the American industrial age. In Marsh’s painting, we see the power and momentum of the train in motion and get a real sense of how signifi cant the railroad was in advancing the nation. Luks depicts a grittier reality—boys engaged in the dangerous work of removing coal impurities by hand—making us witness to the extent to which child labor was exploited to keep the wheels of industry turning.
The five new galleries will feature early 20th-century landscapes and photography, including depictions of California and the West; America during the 1930s; the later 20th-century movements of pop art and geometric abstraction; and a room devoted to the work of Robert Rauschenberg. For students and aficionados of art and art history, we present a unique American visual narrative that runs from the 1690s to the 1980s. It’s a powerful story, and one that will only get stronger as we continue to add strategic selections of art to the collection.
Steve Koblik, President