Becoming America at the Huntington

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Despairing about the state of political discourse in these United States? Perfect timing for a visit to the Huntington in San Marino with their cleanly classical new wing designed by Frederick Fisher and Partners. An extension of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art, the opening exhibition offers a giant step back in time to the art and craft of the 18th and early 19th centuries.  Some 200 pieces -- including textiles, ceramics, furniture, metalwork and paintings -- represent the collection of philanthropists and public health advocates Jonathan and Karin Fielding who were the lead donors to the $10.3 million 8,600 square foot building as well as some of their art.

Exterior view of Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art,
the Jonathan and Karin Fielding Wing

© Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
Photo by Fredrik Nilsen

The art reflects a widespread proclivity in post-colonial America towards simplicity, utility and gentility. It is a sensibility quite separate from the elaborate porcelain, silver and painting produced by British artists of the century before colonial independence and found in abundance in the Huntington' s well known art collection. This unaffected early-American aesthetic looks modern to the contemporary eye. This was not lost on the Huntington' s director of art collections Kevin Salatino who worked with Fisher on an installation that accentuates the statement. For example, one large wall is painted robin' s egg blue to showcase eight hand-stitched quilts aligned as grid of stars, crosses and circles of color. Removed from their functional origins, they could be contemporary geometric abstractions. (Plenty of modern artists have been influenced by quilts.) 

Wall of quilts
© Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

Photo by Fredrik Nilsen

Similarly, the Fieldings collected furniture that was painted to replicate costly wood grain, marble or ormolu decorations. This artificiality wound up being popular on its own merit and has an oddball appeal that resonates today. Portraits were rendered in simple lines and glazes, often without the ability to exact a perfect likeness, but most are more interesting for that very fact. Sheldon Peck (1797-1868), now little known, painted a number of portraits including that of a handsome young man almost buried under swags of red curtain. His talent wouldn' t have cut sway in the courts of European aristocracy but that didn' t matter in a new country with a newly monied class of patrons.

Sheldon Peck, "Untitled (Portrait of a Young Man with Red Curtain)," ca. 1827-30
Oil on poplar panel
Photo by Drohojowska-Philp

The Fieldings were particularly interested in the history and appearance of utilitarian pieces as well as paintings that reflected the lives of the people. Many items in the show have been donated and the show complements the larger holdings of American art at the Huntington.

Riley Whiting, Federal Tall Case Clock, ca. 1820
Pine, glass and paint, 88 × 18 1/2 × 11 in
Jonathan and Karin Fielding Collection
Photo by Fredrik Nilsen
© Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

How is this an antidote to internet-driven election insanity? There is a strength and solidity there that bids us to have faith in the process of democracy and the country s ability to survive divisiveness with a generosity of spirit. You have time to go after the election as well. The show is on long term loan over the next three years, at which point we' ll be facing yet another presidential election. 

Joseph Proctor (attributed, active, 1860),
"Still Life with a Basket of Fruit, Flowers and Cornucopia," 19th century

Oil on canvas, 46 × 48 × 1 1/2 in.
Jonathan and Karin Fielding Collection
© Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
Photo by Fredrik Nilsen

Or, if you want to spend time contemplating ancient times and a leader who attempted to use his royal power to alter the course of history with tragic consequences, LA Opera opens Philip Glass'  1983 Akhnaten this weekend. This co-production with the English National Opera is conducted by wunderkind Matthew Aucoin and directed by Phelim McDermott. It continues through November 27, a rare opportunity to see one of Glass'  portrait operas.  

Philip Glass' Akhnaten
Photo courtesy of the LA Opera