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The splendidly redone Huntington Art Gallery bespeaks beauty, earthly ambition.

May 25, 2008|Christopher Knight | Times Art Critic

THE PAVED terrace behind the Huntington Art Gallery is 80 paces wide. By my stride, that's more than 165 feet. Stand at the center and look south, with the imposing Beaux-Arts mansion and its striped green awnings at your back, and infinity rolls out before you.

Over the Italianate balustrade, between stone urns carved with rams' heads, ribbons and grape garlands, hinting at Dionysian revelry; down across the lawn that separates a stand of tropical palms from a grove of live oaks; skimming the tops of jacaranda, the continuum unfurls. It proceeds unimpeded into an atmospheric haze, a horizon line almost impossible to detect.

San Marino's Huntington Art Gallery reemerges Wednesday after a magnificent two-year, $20-million renovation. The view from the terrace, remarkably as free of buildings in today's jampacked metropolitan Los Angeles as it was 100 years ago, when the great country house was being planned, has been there all along. The Huntington extrapolates that vision of boundless space into something that approaches the California Dream.

Infinity is an ancient idea, but 17th and 18th century Europeans were mad about it, and it's their art the Huntington enshrines. The popularity was fueled by exploration. Lucrative traders circumnavigated the globe, and scientists voyaged into novel universes opened by the microscope and telescope. Artists probed and played with infinity in their art, architects in their buildings.

The first grand room of the Huntington mansion, built in a young city now famous for blurring the separation between indoors and outdoors, offers a typical interior architectural representation of the exterior garden's infinity view. The oak-paneled library was designed to accommodate magnificent 18th century Beauvais tapestries showing aristocrats engaged in rituals of idealized country courtship, designed by Francois Boucher. But mirrored doors at one end match the big mirror placed over the fireplace at the other, so that the crystal chandeliers hung on the axis between them reflect into glittering infinity.

The Huntington's terrace view is framed by sensational -- and brutal -- life-size bronze sculptures, cast in 1680-81 for Jacques Houzeau. The French animalier, an artist specializing in realistic animal portrayals, helped decorate the gardens at Versailles.

In a now-weathered green patina, these sculptures show slavering dogs bringing down a ferocious wild boar and a regal stag. Survival is hard in the turbulent forest, the theatrical sculptures assert, but powerful, civilized creatures can triumph over the feral and the savage.

In short, it's good to be the king. Or, at the westernmost edge of America's Manifest Destiny as the 20th century began, it was good to be Henry E. Huntington, heir to a huge railroad fortune and the most powerful industrialist in L.A.

Likewise, it was good to be Arabella D. Huntington -- the lovingly nicknamed Belle, Henry's former aunt by marriage and now his wife, reputed to be the country's richest woman. Together the couple created a magnificent house, library, garden and art collection. Today, as a whole new Gilded Age has trickled down after a quarter-century of supply-side economics, the reopening of their handsomely refurbished, smartly reinstalled gallery couldn't be more timely.

The renovation

Much OF the Huntington restoration has taken place on the gallery's exterior and in hidden structural systems. But inside, considerable rearrangement of the collections has also taken place, adroitly guided by director John Murdoch.

The first floor is now an eloquent sequence of domestic period rooms, anchored by the library with its leather-bound volumes of Matthew Arnold, Lord Tennyson and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and conqueror's histories of Egypt and India. Eighteenth century English paintings -- the collection's hallmark -- get an ancien regime pedigree with deluxe French furniture and refined Persian carpets.

A large drawing room is installed with children's portraits by George Romney, Joshua Reynolds and the lesser-known Reynolds imitator, John Hoppner, a subject repeated in tapestry-covered chairs showing cherubic kids learning music and literature. The youthful theme recalls that this is the room where Thomas Gainsborough's portrait of teen heartthrob Jonathan Buttall -- the picture-postcard "Blue Boy" -- originally hung when the Huntingtons were alive.

Next is a small drawing room. An intimate space housing seven British portraits of women, it subtly but smartly evokes Belle's central role in creating the art collection.

In an imposing, rather Georgian-style dining room adjacent, the slender crystal obelisks topping an amazing chandelier make a formal nod to Gilbert Stuart's anomalous American portrait of George Washington over the fireplace. Nearby, Gainsborough's idyllic fantasy of an English country cottage depicts "the simple life" for a British aristocrat -- and for a turn-of-the-century American robber baron.

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