Press Release - A “Gilded Age” Family Saga: New Book Provides Fresh Insights on Huntington Family's Wealth, Collecting, and Philanthropy

January 31, 2013


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SAN MARINO, Calif. — If Downton Abbey had been an American country house, this family might have inhabited it. A groundbreaking new book about to be released by the Huntington Library Press, the publishing arm of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, provides powerful new insights into the lives, remarkable wealth, collecting, and philanthropy of the Huntington family during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The book examines the life of four Huntingtons: Railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington (1821–1900); his widow, Arabella (1850–1924); her son, Archer (1870–1955); and Collis’ nephew Henry Edwards Huntington (1850–1927), who subsequently married Arabella and went on to create the institution bearing his name. 


Collis P. Huntington, ca. 1860. Hispanic Society of America.   Arabella D. Huntington, photograph by W. Kurtz, Madison Square, New York City, ca. 1880s. Hispanic Society of America.   Archer M. Huntington at age 20, 1890. Hispanic Society of America.   Henry E. Huntington,1907. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
Collis P. Huntington, ca. 1860. Hispanic Society of America. more
Arabella D. Huntington, photograph by W. Kurtz, Madison Square, New York City, ca. 1880s. Hispanic Society of America. more
  Archer M. Huntington at age 20, 1890. Hispanic Society of America. more
  Henry E. Huntington, photograph by Theo C. Marceau, New York City, 1907. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. more

The Art of Wealth: The Huntingtons in the Gilded Age, by Shelley M. Bennett, former curator of European art and senior research associate at The Huntington, is slated for release in early May, with an author speaking tour scheduled for the United States and Britain.


“Initially, the story seemed to be about four very different individuals, their money, tastes, and proclivities,” says Bennett. “But over time, in unearthing new material we weren’t aware of, including important correspondence among them, it became a heavily interwoven narrative.  This was one amazing family—even as they were so very independent from one another, they held a remarkably consistent set of values out of which emerged a powerful sense of ambition, responsibility, and, finally, legacy.”


Illustrated with more than 200 photographs, many never before published, the compelling narrative of The Art of Wealth challenges much of the previous literature on the four, particularly Archer and Arabella.


Bennett, an art historian by training, writes sweepingly about the Huntingtons’ art acquisitions along the way, the purchasing and building of large and lavish homes, luxurious travel, and, ultimately, each of their desires to leave something significant behind. While scholarly in intent, the book also reads as a fast-moving family drama. It provides riveting details about Arabella’s monumental rags-to-riches rise and American high society’s unwillingness to accept her into it; Henry and Arabella’s prenuptial agreement; and the extent to which he, and his uncle before him, worked to please the woman at the center of it all.


The thread is a familiar one, as any number of successful entrepreneurs of the time made large sums of money, lived extravagant lives, and then sought to leave their mark on the world through the establishment of institutions devoted to serving the public: Andrew Carnegie established libraries and institutions of higher learning; Andrew Mellon contributed the initial art collection and funding for the National Gallery of Art in Washington; and Henry Clay Frick and J. P. Morgan established New York museums to make their personal collections publicly accessible.


But this is the first time the lives of all four Huntingtons and their combined legacies have been examined. Moreover, says Steve Koblik, Huntington president, “It’s also an examination of the development of American society and high culture in a period of substantial turbulence and growth. Their stories form a spectacular prism through which we get to see the history of a time—at once fascinating, horrifying, dynamic, and complex. There is much to learn here.” The backdrop is indeed dramatic—it spans the U.S. Civil War, the industrialization of America, the decline of the European economy, and World War I.

Collis P. Huntington
press-2013-collis-huntingtonCollis P. Huntington was not born into money. As a young boy, local authorities took him from his destitute parents and placed him with a family that could provide for him; he later became a peddler, then traveled to California to seek his fortune in the California Gold Rush. He would, through determination, drive, and with a penchant for adventure, become one of the founders of the Central Pacific Railroad Co., the firm that would build the U.S. transcontinental railway and establish the foundation for the family’s wealth.


Much is known about his robber baron years and financial motives. He was ruthless and power-hungry and displayed his wealth prominently through land purchases, opulent residences, and fine art. And yet, he also displayed deep convictions about specific social ills. He was an ardent abolitionist and a supporter of African American education. From 1874 until his death in 1900, he was a strong supporter of Hampton Institute in Virginia, one of the first schools dedicated to higher education for African Americans. The 1903 library building on campus, built with funding from Arabella, was named in his memory. Bennett’s book describes Collis’ relationship with the school as much more than a check-writing exercise. He “took a close personal interest in the achievements of the students.”


He was also a strong supporter of Booker T. Washington’s efforts at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Washington wrote, after Collis’ death, “I have wondered how a man who was burdened with such tremendous responsibilities could find the time to talk with me at so great length about the welfare of our school and the race.” Bennett’s book notes Collis’ selective reasoning: while he actively and publicly supported African American education and progress, “his motives were complex.” The book provides a fascinating window into the Huntingtons’ emerging, if uneven, social consciousness.


Not unlike other philanthropists of the time, Collis financially supported the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and ultimately bequeathed his art collection to it. He willed one of his homes to Yale University and made gifts to New York’s Natural History Museum as well.


But perhaps, says Bennett, his most significant act of philanthropy was the establishment of the Huntington Free Library in Westchester, N.Y., “open to all races and creeds, to share and share alike.” It set an important precedent that Archer and Henry would later follow.


“Collis’ story may be the most complicated,” says Bennett. “He’s been seen for so long as a one-dimensional robber baron. But, in fact, he’s interested in other cultures and appears to have a very global perspective. He helps fund the acquisition of African artifacts for the Museum of Natural History. He supports efforts to explore and preserve the vanishing languages of the American southwest. He is quite a multifaceted character.”


The Art of Wealth provides something of a behind-the-scenes look at what motivated the family’s actions along the way, with details culled from Bennett’s fine-tooth-comb examination of emerging tax laws, correspondence, invoices and accounting records, photographs and blueprints, and news reports and diary entries. It is a tour-de-force drawing on Bennett’s 27-year tenure on staff at The Huntington and from research conducted at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, in archives at Syracuse University, and the Hispanic Society in New York, in an effort to connect the dots and assemble a narrative never before attempted.

Arabella Huntington
press-2013-arabella-huntingtonGreat wealth at the time meant building spectacular homes, and these fine homes called for fabulous décor. The Huntingtons all did their part to engage the art market accordingly. In the 1870s, Collis began serious collecting by commissioning Albert Bierstadt’s Donner Lake from the Summit, a work that would go on to achieve wide renown. As Bennett notes, his acquisitions then “gradually increased in price, volume, and quantity.”


The book documents an evolving art market—from the private commissioning of art from the artist himself, to the very public “battle of the titans” at large art auctions, to the entrepreneurial, and very successful, efforts of art dealers serving as middlemen.


Arabella happily got in on the act. Even before they were married in 1884, Collis was financing homes and furnishings for her, as well as art. Her past is hazy; her birthplace is not known, and she worked hard to keep her age secret. What is apparent is that she met Collis, who was married at the time, on either one of his trips to New York City or Richmond, Va., when she was in her late teens. She reportedly was married to John Worsham, a man who ran gambling houses. But the details are not completely clear. What is known, however, is that by 1869, she was pregnant, and, as Bennett notes, asking Collis for assistance. He complied with her requests, Bennett says, “as he would often do in the future.” Archer was born in 1870, shortly after which Arabella and baby, along with her mother, moved to a more suitable house, all underwritten by Collis. Over a period of just a few years, Arabella herself was buying and selling property in the city. She was strategic and a quick study—mastering massive amounts of information about real estate, art, the French language, and high culture. “By the time she was 27, Arabella, a single mother, owned property in her own name that today would be worth about $6.5 million,” Bennett writes.


Collis’ first wife died in 1883; he and Arabella married a few months later.


Art acquisitions seemed to come naturally. On trips to Europe in the 1880s and ’90s Collis and Arabella purchased Vermeer’s iconic Woman with a Lute as well as portraits by Joshua Reynolds, Gobelins tapestries, and works of decorative art. Back in the United States, they purchased mainly from New York art dealers, spending today’s equivalent of $4.6 million in 1899 alone.


Following Collis’ death in 1900, Arabella continued to spend lavishly—on homes, furnishings, jewelry, and art. She also gave generously to the Hampton Institute, Tuskegee Institute, Harvard University, and the hospital that would become the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Archer Huntington
press-2013-archer-huntingtonHe was referred to as Archer Milton Worsham in his youth, then as Archer Milton Huntington following Arabella’s marriage to Collis in 1884. His paternity remains a mystery. Newspaper reports from the period referred to him as Collis’ adopted son. Indeed, they called each other as father and son, and Bennett notes a strong physical resemblance between the two men. But, she says, “the truth may never be known without DNA testing.”


Arabella doted on Archer with abandon and supported his philanthropic interests, particularly the establishment of the Hispanic Society of America. Archer’s interest in all things Spanish began with his first trip abroad with his mother when he was 12 years old. He was also inspired by a trip to Mexico five years later, traveling by rail with Arabella and Collis.


“Mexico was a revelation,” he wrote about the trip. “This, of course, was my first encounter with something which was to fill my whole life, and all at once I felt a curious, feverish eagerness.” He had known at that time that his lifelong goal would be to build a museum, and so he began collecting rare books and manuscripts in Spanish as well as Spanish art. Collis was supportive. He noted in his diary in 1892, “A further talk with my father raised the question of extra expenditures and again he was generous. It was the matter of books. ‘Buy what you want,’ he said. I pointed out that rare books were expensive. He repeated, ‘Buy what you want.’ Could anything have been more encouraging!” When it opened in 1908, the Hispanic Society library in New York contained more than 100,000 books, 1,000 manuscripts, as well as paintings by El Greco, Diego Velasquez, and Francisco de Goya.


It was not his only philanthropic undertaking: Archer, with a deep intellect and drive all his own, would work to develop John James Audubon’s estate in New York City into a complex of nonprofit organizations that included the Hispanic Society, the American Numismatic Society, the American Geographical Society, and the Museum of the American Indian. With his second wife, sculptor Anna Hyatt, he established Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina and the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va.

Henry E. Huntington
press-2013-henry-huntingtonAt the dawn of the 20th century, Arabella, now a widow, was being wooed by Collis’ nephew, Henry, who had inherited about a third of his uncle’s estate—perhaps the equivalent of more than half a billion dollars. Huntington, also deeply involved in the transcontinental railroad enterprise and a tremendously ambitious businessman in his own right, was quickly establishing himself as a major figure in Southern California—purchasing real estate, utilities, and establishing light rail lines connecting communities, creating a new metropolitan experience. He was also building a spectacular home on his new property on the San Marino ranch and was eager to involve Arabella in decisions.


In 1913, Henry and Arabella married in Paris (he had divorced his first wife in 1906). Marrying her nephew was a wildly scandalous move—perhaps even more than her first marriage to Collis (with whom she had been associated well before his wife’s death). She would never find a secure place in high society America so indulged herself in the European equivalent. And she would join Henry in building a home in Southern California where she found more acceptance, far away from the Stanfords and Vanderbilts who had ostracized her.


And build he did. He had been purchasing books for the library, thousands at a time. Aside from such icons as the Gutenberg Bible and the Ellesmere Chaucer, his purchases included important and expansive holdings on George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln, as well as rare books and manuscripts from England that dated back to Queen Elizabeth I, and before. The New York Times reported in May of 1917 that Huntington had spent today’s equivalent of $101 million over six years. Huntington, the reporter enthused, had the “distinction of possessing today the finest private library ever gathered together.”


For the mansion, he bought spectacular furnishings, including a set of Beauvais tapestries for the equivalent of $14 million today, more than he paid to build the house itself. Together, he and Arabella, with the able assistance of notoriously ambitious art dealer Joseph Duveen, assembled among the most important collections of European art in the United States west of the Mississippi, the most celebrated piece of which was Gainsborough’s Blue Boy—purchased for today’s equivalent of about $9 million. The painting’s shift from its native England to western America created an international sensation, making countless headlines.


Over time, the art and furnishings had matured into a collection of great range and depth—works by Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, J. M. W. Turner, and Thomas Lawrence as well as by Rogier van der Weyden, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Houdon, among others. There were exquisite carpets and clocks, silver, and fine Chinese porcelain. And all the while, large quantities of antiquarian books were coming in by the rail car.


But spending and acquiring at this level was not simply to satisfy a passion for collecting. Henry had, some years earlier, declared that he would “give something to the public” before his death. But it was Archer and Henry’s trusted friend, astronomer George Ellery Hale, who ultimately encouraged him to create an “intellectual center . . . of broad scope” controlled by a board of trustees and situated in Southern California. The Los Angeles Times announced the founding of the institution in September 1919: “The largest individual contribution for the advancement of literature and art ever made in the West was announced yesterday, when Henry E. Huntington . . . recorded a trust indenture in which he gave to the public his private library . . . and to convey home and pictures to the public, for an art gallery, at the time of his death.”


Today, The Huntington attracts more than a half million people to its grounds and galleries each year. Henry Huntington’s endowment to the institution provides $1.7 million annually in fellowships to scholars for advanced humanities research through a rigorous peer-reviewed process. And each year, some 1,600 scholars come to The Huntington to conduct research using its rare books, manuscripts, photographs, maps, paintings, prints, sculptures, decorative arts, and related materials.


About the book

The Art of Wealth: The Huntingtons in the Gilded Age
350 pages, hardcover, 220 illus., b/w and color, 8 1/2 by 11 in.

ISBN# 978-0-87328-253-6

Publication date: May 1, 2013; List price: $40.00
Huntington Library Press
1151 Oxford Rd. San Marino, CA  91108 USA

About the Author

Shelley M. Bennett. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.Shelley M. Bennett holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles.  She began her career in academia, before assuming a curatorial position at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, serving for 27 years as Curator of European Art and then Senior Research Associate.  Her publications include British Paintings at The Huntington (Yale University Press, London 2001) and Eighteenth-Century French Art at The Huntington (Yale University Press, London 2008).  Her current book, The Art of Wealth; The Huntingtons in the Gilded Age, focuses on Collis, Arabella, Archer, and Henry E. Huntington, their patterns of collecting, and the development of modern cultural philanthropy in America.


Shelley M. Bennett. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.



Book Tour

US: April 10 The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
  April 29 The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
  May 1 The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
  May 2 The Frick Collection, New York, NY
  May 4 Hispanic Society of America, New York, N.Y.
  May 16 Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Conn.
  June 6 Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, Calif.
  June 15 Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, Calif.
UK: May 8 Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, London
  May 9 National Portrait Gallery, London
  May 13 The Wallace Collection, London



Request images



Arabella D. Yarrington with her son, Archer, ca. 1871. Hispanic Society of America.



Archer M. Huntington on his first trip to Spain in 1892, with his photographer and a cart used to carry photographic equipment. Hispanic Society of America.



Arabella and Collis Huntington's Homestead Residence, Throggs Neck, Westchester County, N.Y., n.d. Hispanic Society of America.



Exterior, Arabella Huntington's West 54th Street residence, New York City, n.d. Hispanic Society of America.



Master Bedroom, Arabella Huntington's West 54th Street residence, New York City, 1882–84. Hispanic Society of America.



Rogier van der Weyden, Madonna and Child, ca. 1460. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.



Thomas Gainsborough, The Blue Boy, ca. 1770. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.


CONTACTS:  Susan Turner-Lowe, 626-405-2147,

                        Thea Page, 626-405-2260,


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[EDITOR’S NOTE: High-resolution digital images available on request for publicity use.]


About the Huntington Library Press
Established in 1920, the Huntington Library Press is one of Southern California's oldest book publishers. Its current publishing agenda includes a quarterly journal for scholars and a mixture of scholarly books, conference papers, exhibition catalogs, facsimiles from its collections, and visitor publications. These are distributed worldwide. The Huntington also issues books in cooperation with other publishers in the United States, England, and Japan.

About The Huntington
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens is a collections-based research and educational institution serving scholars and the general public. More information about The Huntington can be found online at

Visitor information
The Huntington is located at 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, Calif., 12 miles from downtown Los Angeles. It is open to the public Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday from noon to 4:30 p.m.; and Saturday, Sunday, and Monday holidays from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Summer hours (Memorial Day through Labor Day) are 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Closed Tuesdays and major holidays. Admission on weekdays: $15 adults, $12 seniors (65+), $10 students (ages 12–18 or with full-time student I.D.), $6 youth (ages 5–11), free for children under 5. Group rate $11 per person for groups of 15 or more. Members are admitted free. Admission on weekends and Monday holidays: $20 adults, $15 seniors, $10 students, $6 youth, free for children under 5. Group rate $14 per person for groups of 15 or more. Members are admitted free. Admission is free to all visitors on the first Thursday of each month with advance tickets. Rates subject to change. Information: 626-405-2100 or

About The Huntington

The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens is a collections-based research and educational institution established in 1919 by Henry E. and Arabella Huntington. Henry Huntington, a key figure in the...

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