Huntington Railroad Fortune
One of the enduring pleasures of visiting art museums is to imagine yourself as the owner of the priceless work of art in front of you. The truly democratic aspect of public museums is that every patron becomes an artwork’s owner for one ephemeral moment.
Nowhere is this illusion better preserved than at the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery in San Marino, an affluent Los Angeles suburb just south of Pasadena. Huntington, a superbly wealthy railroad and real estate magnate, owned twelve hundred acres of land here. He sold off all but two hundred and twenty acres, which he kept as his estate. It was eventually bequeathed as the eponymous library and art gallery. The sprawling grounds house immaculately kept gardens, including the original desert plants and succulents which were of anomalous interest to Huntington.
The Huntington holds ‘The Long Leg’, a 1935 oil painting executed at Hopper’s summer home in Cape Cod. In contrast to his famous urban scenes of apartment interiors and New York streetscapes, Hopper’s Cape Cod pictures tend to focus on sailing, maritime villages and lighthouses. ‘The Long Leg’ has graced everything from insurance brochures to the covers of sailing books. It is ‘one of the favorites in terms of the American collection’ at the Huntington according to Dr. Kevin Murphy, a young California native and the Bradford and Christine Mishler Curatorial Fellow in American Art. The picture is always on display and is not allowed out on loan because ‘to have it gone for a period of a year or so would really be a strain because people do come to see it.’
An Heiress Buys a Hopper
The ‘Long Leg’ was part of the Virginia Steele Scott Foundation gift to the Huntington in 1983. Virginia Steele Scott was an heiress who lived in Pasadena. She married a local artist, Jonathan Scott, several years her junior. She had an ‘eclectic’ art collection, says Murphy politely, which included works by Gaugin and Picasso.
Mrs. Scott initially sought to establish a museum within her home. The local government halted the development due to zoning restrictions. Scott therefore decided to sell off her original collection and establish a new, American-centered collection, with the ultimate goal of endowing it to a local museum.
It has all the things, except maybe a person looking lonely somewhere, that one might want out of a Hopper.
Similar to Preston Morton in Santa Barbara, Mrs. Scott bought fifty paintings by American artists over a short period in the late 1970’s. ‘The Long Leg’ was purchased from Kennedy Galleries in New York, long-time secondary dealers of Hopper’s work, in September, 1976. Scott approached the Huntington Gallery with her new purchases. It accepted the collection along with funding for a gallery to house the works and an endowment for a curator to manage the collection.
Kevin Murphy escorts me to ‘The Long Leg’, which is on display in a small, perfectly air-conditioned gallery. It is still two hours before opening time and except for us the gallery is empty. Murphy clearly likes ‘The Long Leg’ and, as we stare at the picture, I ask for his thoughts:
It has all the things, except maybe a person looking lonely somewhere, that one might want out of a Hopper. The composition is very reductive, in that it’s just the sea, the boat, the land, it’s only got four elements. It’s one of those paintings that makes you feel like you can step into it. You know exactly what the light was like. You know exactly what time of day it is. Exactly how the water would be, all of those things. And how the wind would be blowing. It really has that great sense of place that Hopper was able to capture in a lot of his things, the work that he was doing in Cape Cod.
It is the first Thursday of the month, which is the traditional day for free public admission at the Huntington. As it is Maundy Thursday, the museum is expecting crowds of six to ten thousand people.
Until opening time, I have the place to myself. I wander through Huntington’s Xanadu, past forests of bonsai trees, waterfalls coursing past palm trees and a dizzying array of cacti. The spring flowers attract swarms of bumble bees. In the Australian garden, a dusty mix of flowering plants and towering eucalypts produce the haunting smells of the Australian bush.
As I wander, I feel a kinship with all of those Americans, wealthy beyond belief, who choose, from whatever motivation, to share their wealth with the public. It’s noon by the time I make it back to the front gate. Throngs of multicultural Americans swarm at the entrance. Lines of stationary cars stretch back from the museum for blocks. On behalf of the Mortons, the Huntingtons and the Scotts, I stay and watch the gates go up, the river of humanity spreading out into the grounds in pleasurable release.
At which museum do you feel like you have the art all to yourself?