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Belle of her own ball?

At the family mansion, a little get-together reintroduces Arabella Huntington. It begins nicely but dwindles.

June 02, 2006|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Introductions come in all shapes and sizes and fit all sorts of occasions. At academic conferences, junior faculty introduce senior scholars with two goals in mind: to pay homage to admired authorities while showing off their own talents. At cocktail parties, people introduce one another because it's the polite thing to do -- and because friendly chitchat is fun.

At the Huntington Library in San Marino, a small, two-gallery exhibition combines the formality of public introductions with the casualness of personal ones. Organized by curatorial fellow Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, it's a puzzling mix that leaves visitors wondering what sort of event they have walked into.

"The Belle of San Marino: Introducing Arabella Huntington" begins with great promise. A pair of portraits hang side by side. The first, painted in 1882 by Alexandre Cabanel, is a life-size, full-length depiction of Arabella Yarrington Worsham (1850-1924) in the prime of life and just before her marriage to Collis P. Huntington.

A plunging neckline and elbow-length sleeves reveal smooth, alabaster skin and fleshy heft. Cabanel surrounds the standing figure with a rich symphony of pinks, crimsons and burgundies. A sumptuous cascade of tapestries, bows, roses, clothing, carpets and lace -- made of velvet, silk, wool and feathers -- intensifies the embrace of aristocratic trappings.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 08, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Huntington exhibition: An art review in Friday's Calendar said a gown displayed in "The Belle of San Marino: Introducing Arabella Huntington" at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens was a garment worn by Huntington. The dress was not Huntington's but rather is a gown similar to the one she is shown wearing in a photograph from the early 1900s.

Power and femininity fuse. So do drive and self-containment, civility and authority. You barely notice the gold, thin-framed pince-nez Huntington wears like a piece of useful jewelry.

The second portrait, painted by Oswald Birley in 1924, just months before Arabella Huntington's death at 74, conveys an even stronger sense that she played hardball and harbored no illusions about who she was. Seated in a thickly cushioned gilt chair adorned with carved-wood beasts, she is dressed entirely in black: hat, bow, scarf, shawl, dress, lace, jacket, gloves, earrings, onyx necklaces and the thick round frames of her pince-nez, which are prominent.

Huntington's ramrod uprightness looks as natural as most folks' slumped shoulders. Her hands rest casually in her lap. Her wrinkled skin, again revealed by a low-cut neckline, looks ashen, suggesting a preference for hard reality over sugar-coated coverup.

Huntington's expression conveys contentment without the smugness of self-satisfaction. Well past her prime, she is still formidable, perhaps not a force in the boardroom but someone who wants her life to live on in memory as a benchmark against which future generations might measure themselves.

Also in the first gallery are four small photographs, two by Nadar, one by Theodore C. Marceau and one by an anonymous photographer. Like the painted portraits, the studio photographs depict Huntington at various ages: as a sweet-faced twentysomething, an aspiring grande dame, a well-heeled widow and a free-thinking woman who enjoys posing.

Wall labels offer anecdotal tidbits, the most notable informing visitors that from the time Huntington's second husband died when she was 50, she never stopped wearing black. A luxurious, 100-year-old mourning gown made of English crape is displayed next to the Nadar photograph of Huntington wearing the garment. Across the gallery stands a beautiful mirrored cabinet she owned.

A free brochure provides a bit of historical background. Huntington was born Arabella Duval Yarrington near Union Springs, Ala., in 1850. She married John Archer Worsham when she was 18 or 19 and had a son the next year. Her husband died in 1878. Six years later she married Collis P. Huntington, a 62-year-old railroad magnate who died in 1900, making her, newspapers reported, "the richest woman in the world."

Thirteen years later, at 63, Arabella married Collis' nephew, Henry E. Huntington, for whom she had worked for years and whose San Marino ranch and home is now the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

In contrast to the first gallery, which makes visitors curious to learn more about the "Belle of San Marino," the second narrows its focus to such tedious archival materials and specialized distinctions among types of lace that Huntington all but disappears from the exhibition meant to introduce her.

Seven small photographic portraits of Huntington get lost amid 12 vitrines filled with magazines, auction catalogs, tortoiseshell hair accessories and lace scarves, cuffs, borders, flounces, fichus, lappets, bonnets, veils, a parasol cover, a cape and an overbodice.

The lace is amazing, with dazzling examples of point d'Argentan, point d'Alencon, point de Gaze and Chantilly creating complex compositions animated by naturalistic representations and geometric patterns. But it seems to belong to a different exhibition, perhaps a historical overview of lace-making and collecting. The particularities of the lace provide little insight into Huntington's character.

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