No, this isn’t a Buzzfeed quiz.
This summer, I interned at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in the beautiful San Marino, California (just outside L.A.). I worked at a desk in the art division’s offices, but I often got the chance to walk through the art galleries for my projects—and for fun, of course. The Huntington’s British art is housed inside the original mansion that railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington lived in in the early 20th century.
On the first level of the house, several opulent rooms have been kept relatively intact. But there is a new addition called the Thornton Portrait Gallery, which houses some of the Huntington’s best works, including Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy (1779), which at one point was the most expensive art work ever bought (wealthy Henry, of course, was the one who bought it).
The Thornton Portrait Gallery is long hall with a beautiful skylight ceiling and green walls high enough to fit full-length Grand Manner portraits from 18th century England. At first glance, the hall is striking. The sumptuously-colored, full-body portraits of British aristocracy create a giant cast of characters lined up around you. But each of these portraits individually is just as impressive. I’ve selected the most fun and interesting portraits to write about here. These highlights are organized so that they would appear roughly in the same order if you were actually in the Thornton Portrait Gallery, looking around clockwise from the entrance.
Penelope is being portrayed as an artist (she has artistic tools all around her) with great confidence—a confidence that pushed the boundaries of a woman’s propriety. The placement of her fingers calls attention to her mind. Her husband’s companion portrait is on view right beside hers and pales in comparison, as it is exactly along the lines of what you’d expect from a portrait of a nobleman—the Viscount Ligonier is in military uniform, standing beside a horse. But here, Penelope’s wry, clever expression shines (especially in person—I don’t think a picture of it does it justice). After my friend Ana and I had walked through the Thornton Gallery, I turned to her and asked, “Which one are you?” She “hmm”ed about it, then pointed to Penelope. “Me too,” I said. “Definitely.”
What’s so captivating about Diana is how in-motion she is. Her expression looks so playful, her hair is swept by wind, and her actions are caught in a moment. As this painting’s label interestingly states, this natural depiction reflects a time in England where relaxation was becoming chic—it was becoming fashionable for those in high society be rather negligent toward their decorum. I look at Diana and decide I want her as a best friend.
Ah, The Blue Boy. The most famous painting at the Huntington. The silky blue of his outfit is mesmerizing. He’s definitely the one who always shows up overdressed to the party. Yet, I can’t help but think that some of the portraits of female sitters in this gallery are more impressive. But that’s an unpopular opinion. Something interesting about The Blue Boy is that the Huntington took it down for a conservation analysis while I was interning there. It’ll be back on public display on November 1, and visitors will be able to watch as about two years’ worth of conservation will be done on the painting inside the gallery! You can read more about Project Blue Boy here.
It’s hard to see in this photo, but Elizabeth’s dress is dazzling. She is on the wall opposite the entrance, far across the large hallway. Yet her golden dress caught my eye as soon as I walked in. British master Gainsborough somehow managed to make the paint shimmer where the light falls upon the folds of the garment. Up close, it’s just as lovely, and you can see the flecks of other colors within the gold of the dress—green, yellow, brown, gold, white. Elizabeth is certainly the fashionista of the group.
Almost as iconic as The Blue Boy, Pinkie is a sight to behold. The portrait was made after Sarah Moulton had died in her childhood, and both symbolizes and idealizes youth. I hadn’t noticed this before I read the label, but the low horizon of the photo makes Pinkie appear monumental. This, I think, is what makes the entire painting so epic. If Pinkie were a modern-day girl, she’d probably have a silver bracelet that says “Forever Young” on it.
As you can tell from this totally subjective and (hopefully!) slightly humorous tour, the Thornton Portrait Gallery was an enormous source of both entertainment and awe for me. The paintings are breathtaking and catch interesting personalities that sparked my imagination. When I get back to Princeton, I plan on walking through the Princeton University Art Museum again and paying particular attention to the portraits. We have some great ones (my personal favorites are here and here), so I think I’ll be just as excited as I was at the Huntington!