02 June 2009

The Huntington Makes Space -- For Zenobia

Guest Blogging

It's Zenobia’s great pleasure to welcome Glenn Barnett.

He's guest blogging today to tell us about the opening of the newly expanded and refurbished galleries of American art at the Huntington Library -- where a monumental statue of Zenobia in Chains (1859) has settled in and made herself at home.

This weekend, the seven-foot (2.13 m) tall marble statue, long assumed to be lost or destroyed, went on public display -- for the first time in 123 years. I wrote about the statue, and its creator, the sculptor (and "jolly bachelor girl") Harriet Hosmer last year.

If you haven't read that post, maybe now is the time: Harriet Hosmer is worth the detour. Click on Zenobia Is Back In America.

Glenn shares my passion for everything about Zenobia.

He is the author of a novel, the namesake of this blog, Zenobia: Empress of the East -- which makes him our inadvertent godfather. Glenn is also an instructor at Cerritos College in Norwalk, Southern California, where he has taught U.S. and Russian history, Western Civilization and other subjects. His upcoming book is titled: The Persian War: The Roman Conflicts with Iraq and Iran.

Glenn was at the Huntington opening on Saturday. I'll tell you more about The Huntington after his account. But, first, Glenn's on-the-spot report:


by Glenn Barnett

She is here at last! Zenobia has come to Los Angeles.

Unveiled on the last weekend of May, the long lost statue of ‘Zenobia in Chains’ is now on permanent display at the Huntington Library in San Marino outside of Los Angeles.

The statue was crafted by Harriet Hosmer, an American sculptress who studied in Rome. Hosmer created her Zenobia in 1859 while living in the eternal city. Displayed in London in 1862 ‘Zenobia’ was purchased by a private collector and remained in private hands until last year when she came up for sale and was purchased by the Huntington to augment their magnificent art collection.

I first saw her last summer when Huntington curator Jessica Todd Smith, who purchased Zenobia, graciously invited me to have an early look. She led my wife and I to a warehouse where the newly arrived statue resided among other items being prepared for display. Zenobia was still in her wooden shipping crate with one side open.

Even in this unpretentious setting, it was clear that the seven foot (2.13 m) statue captures that moment in time when Zenobia, her head bowed, was being marched in Emperor Aurelian’s Triumph. She clutches the famed golden chains to herself, owning the moment. Ms. Smith also showed us the room in which Zenobia would be displayed. It is a spacious room with two sources of outside light.

There was much work to do before Zenobia could take her place as the centerpiece in a new display of American art. Since she now resides in Southern California, Zenobia had to be made safe from earthquakes. A unique pedestal was created especially for her. About three feet (.9 m) tall, the shock-absorbing pedestal also gives her a majestic bearing with the added height. As an extra precaution against harm, a hole was bored through the bottom of the marble and a steel rod inserted through the center and fastened to the pedestal.

Then it was time for the final touches. Standing atop the earthquake resistant pedestal, she is lighted to great advantage and can be seen some fifty yards (46 m) away from the other end of a long gallery. In her alcove she is surrounded by four contemporary marble busts (Puck,* to the left of Zenobia, is also by Hosmer), that serve to accentuate her majesty.

Zenobia has taken her place in the collection of iconic American artists ranging from Fredrick Remington to Frank Lloyd Wright in the newly refurbished Virginia Steele Scott Gallery.

She is a beautiful addition to the Huntington and to Los Angeles.


Thank you, Glenn. Now, back to our regular blogging.

Railroad and real estate baron Henry E. Huntington (1850-1927) married his uncle's widow, the socially determined Arabella (1851-1924), in 1912. She was marrying for the second or third time, depending on whether she had been an unmarried mother (all the dirt right here) when she had her first child in 1870.

Whatever the moral ups-and-downs, she became one of the great connoisseurs in the first quarter of the 20th century -- and an inveterate collector of art, jewellery, antiques, and other costly baubles. The Huntingtons, like many Gilded Age super-rich,were smitten with England’s landed gentry. They saw themselves as the American heirs to European aristocracy – the Mother Country’s privileged spawn in the New World.

If Henry and Arabella couldn’t actually be a duke and duchess, at the very least they could buy Thomas Gainsborough’s iconic Blue Boy from the Duke of Westminster and hang Sir Thomas Lawrence’s coquettish Pinkie in the parlour.

And so they did, building a great country house to hold a celebrated collection of British portraits and much, much more.

This was formerly the Huntington residence (above). The art gallery opened to the public in 1928.**

The Huntington will always and forever be identified with British art. Of a particularly kind.

Iconic but gooey.

Like Gainsborough's Blue Boy (ca. 1770, left). According to Patricia Failing, author of Best-Loved Art from American Museums, “no other work by a British artist enjoys the fame of The Blue Boy.”

I'm sure that's true. Cole Porter even sang the "Blue Boy Blues" in 1922, the year it came to California.

Or the sweet "Pinky" (1794, right) painting by Lawrence. The portrait is of Sarah Goodin Barrett Moulton, who sadly died so young, the year after she was portrayed. I wonder if she is related to the Anne Moulton (age 10), whose 1817 needlepoint sampler is also exhibited at The Huntington. Her stitchery includes this prayer:
How blest the Maid, whom circling years improve / Her God, the object of her warmest love. / Whole useful hours, successive as they glide, / the Book, the Needle and the Pen, divide.
The Huntingtons also owned a few American paintings, especially the kind that would connect the United States to England. It really wasn't until 1979 that The Huntington inaugurated American art as a significant part of its collections, when they received a major gift in memory of Virginia Steele Scott (art collector, patron, and philanthropist) which included fifty American paintings.

Perhaps the most robust of the Americans (which means, of course, that I like it best) is Mary Cassatt's "Breakfast in Bed (1897), evoking the Madonna and child, very much in her particular, strong colours.

Mary Cassatt was one of a very small number of American women (Harriet Hosmer, naturally, was another) to become professional artists in the nineteenth century when most wealthy women did not spend time seriously doing anything. You didn't paint; you sketched and daubed. Her decision to pursue an artistic career was opposed by her family ( her father declared he would rather see his daughter dead than living abroad as a "bohemian"), but she left for Paris anyway in 1866 to study painting.

When Cassatt settled in Paris, an artistic revolution was already underway.

O how wild I am to get to work, my fingers fairly itch & my eyes water to see a fine picture again.

How this Uppity Impressionist Woman fared -- and how she took the sentimentality out of portraiture -- is quite another story, for another time.

But I like to think that she was inspired by our heroine Harriet Hosmer -- who had taken the road to "bohemian" Rome just fifteen years before Cassatt sailed for Paris. And she might have already heard the news that this American woman living abroad had sculpted a monumental statue of another Uppity Woman, Zenobia-in-Chains.

Perhaps, we might imagine that, like another well-brought-up young lady of her time, she too had “read [an] interesting sketch of the gifted Miss Hosmer, which has made me long, long, long for the glorious gift of genius.”***

* Hosmer created 'Puck' (after 1854) as a piece of parlour sculpture during a period of dire financial crisis. Her plan paid off handsomely: more than thirty replicas of the popular sculpture were sold at $1,000 apiece. The work is a prime example of the "conceit," or "fancy piece." Unlike idealized sculptures, which were meant to instruct and ennoble the viewer, conceits were playfully imaginative works designed solely to amuse and delight.

The character of Puck appears in English folklore and in Shakespeare's play A Midsummer's Night's Dream, in which he utters the memorable line, "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

Speaking of Shakespeare, the Huntington also has the dramatic (to say the least) painting of "The Meeting of Lear and Cordelia (1784) by the American expatriate Benjamin West, the father of American painting and the only American ever to become President of the Royal Academy of England. It is moral painting at its best (or worst, depending upon your taste).

** The Huntington is also surrounded by 120 acres (50 ha.) of superb botanical gardens, including such exotica as a Japanese wild garden, a desert garden, an Australian garden (take a virtual tour of the gardens right here).

*** From the diary of Charlotte Forten, February 10, 1858. Quoted in The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké, 1988; via Kate Culkin, "A Tale of Two Harriets".


Credits: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

I have also made use of Christopher Knight's review of The Huntington re-opening in the Los Angeles Times.

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