Archer Huntington and the Hispanic Society: A Centennial Celebration

by James F. Cooper

By any measure in the annals of American philanthropy, Archer Milton Huntington (1870–1955) would stand out. Not that he wanted to. He granted no interviews during a career that spanned sixty years. He was so protective of his privacy that there is little published about his remarkable life and accomplishments. He founded the Hispanic Society of America (New York City) and the largest Mariners Museum in the United States (Newport News, Virginia), as well as the largest outdoor sculpture museum, Brookgreen Gardens (Murrells Inlet, South Carolina). He was a major benefactor of the American Numismatic Society, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Indian Museum and the American Geographical Society.

Provoked at first by admiration, then stirred by curiosity, Mary Mitchell and Albert Goodrich wrote The Remarkable Huntingtons: Chronicle of a Marriage (2004), based primarily upon one major source, the voluminous diary kept by his second wife, Anna Hyatt. The authors introduce their story by explaining the dearth of biographical material available about the great philanthropist. More is known about Anna Hyatt Huntington, an important American sculptor, who was 47 when she married the 54-year-old multimillionaire. One explanation for all the secrecy was the illegitimacy of Archer’s birth. His real father was Archer Milton Worsham, the proprietor of a gambling house in Richmond, Virginia. The boy’s mother, Arabella Yarrington, eventually married a very wealthy businessman, Collis P. Huntington, who never formally adopted Archer, but gave him his surname and, eventually, his fortune. The second reason might be ascribed to Archer’s brief marriage to his beautiful, vivacious cousin, who quickly became bored with Archer’s studious ways and ran off with a Broadway impresario. It was years before he recovered emotionally, and almost thirty years before he gave his heart to another. Anna Hyatt shared his interests, and she was his match in fierce intelligence and dedication to the arts.
Their relationship began when he commissioned Anna to design the medal for the Hispanic Society of America. It was only then that they realized that they had been taking the same train into New York City nearly every day for a year. Anna, approaching fifty, had no intentions of ever marrying. She was already world famous for her Jeanne d’Arc in France. When the National Sculpture Society asked Archer to organize an outdoor sculpture exhibit for the Audubon Terrace in front of the Hispanic Society, Anna was on the committee, and they found themselves often in each other’s company. The newspapers called them “The Heroic Couple.”1

Soon after their marriage, Huntington purchased a bankrupt plantation in South Carolina, Brookgreen Gardens, and turned it into the largest outdoor sculpture garden in the United States, set like a jewel in a ten-thousand-acre pristine beach and wilderness preserve. Many of Anna Hyatt’s sculptures are to be found there today, along with work by leading American figurative sculptors of the last 200 years. When Archer presented his new bride with the fabulous jewelry collection amassed by his mother, Arabella, Anna declined it. Viewing the large box of emeralds, diamonds, rubies and pearls, Anna wrote, filled her with “repulsion.”2

They were very generous people. One of the many homes Archer and Anna shared was located on Fifth Avenue and Eighty-ninth Street. Huntington donated the beautiful Beaux-Arts structure to the National Academy of Design. Another Huntington gift was a 13,000-acre wildlife preserve, presented to Syracuse University. Anna wanted to sculpt, he wanted to build a great museum collection. Neither had any interest in society life and celebrity. They had their family, work, travel, several homes, gardens and always a kennel of deerhounds. Both were very independent. Huntington withdrew all his investments from the Wall Street stock market a few months before the Crash of 1929, because he thought he was earning an immoral amount of profit, and something must be very wrong with the marketplace. His business colleagues were aghast at his foolishness.

The Huntingtons made a striking couple well into old age; Archer stood 6’5’’ tall. With all the construction he commissioned during his lifetime, it is interesting to note he favored small interior spaces for his largest buildings and homes. Atalaya, their home in Brookgreen Gardens, was designed by Huntington to resemble an ancient fortress he had seen in his travels to Spain. It was a one-story, one-acre square of fifty small rooms, arranged around a central courtyard with a Moorish watchtower. The entire building—walls, ceilings, floors, hearths, window frames and doorways, even some tables—were constructed entirely out of brick; nearly two million of them were shipped in. Every window was covered with elaborate Spanish grillwork, designed
by Anna. Archer had a lifelong fear of fire. Atalaya is the Spanish word for “watchtower.” Ten years later, Huntington would design another home, Stanerigg, in Redding, Connecticut. The one-story house, constructed out of cinderblocks, looked austere and uninviting. One visitor called it “a penitentiary” and another, “a concrete block monastery.”3 The Huntingtons couldn’t have cared less.

The Hispanic Society is a handsome, classical limestone structure, but some of the interior spaces remind the visitor of Huntington’s homes. He thought windows were a waste of time. “I would like to know how much wall space is wasted in U.S.A. museums by windows,” he groused. “The windows of an art museum should be pictures.”4
Huntington had been thinking about building a museum since he was a child, when he used boxes as gallery rooms and pictures cut out of magazines. As a teenager, he became enamored with Spanish culture during trips to Europe. In 1889, a visit to Mexico with his parents had a profound effect upon him, prompting the idea of a Spanish museum. That same year, his father, Collis Huntington, one of the wealthiest men in America (Central Pacific Railroad, Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company), offered to turn over to the young man his shipping business. Instead, Archer made his intentions clear: he wanted to build a museum devoted to Spanish culture. A friend of his father, Morris Jessup, Director of the American Museum of Natural History, tried in vain to dissuade young Archer from studying a civilization that was “dead and gone.”5
His father and mother, finally convinced by his determination, decided to support his project. Archer spent a year learning Arabic and Spanish in preparation for his first journey to Spain. During the next several years, he traveled often to Spain, collecting books, manuscripts, art, ceramics, textiles and coins. In 1895, he married his cousin Helen Gates Criss, who didn’t share his passion for scholarship and collecting, and eventually left him. With his father’s death in 1900 and a vast inheritance, he began a serious collection of Spanish art.

In 1904, Huntington founded the Hispanic Society of America, with the objective of promoting the study of the artistic and cultural traditions of Spain and Portugal and their areas of influence in the Americas and throughout the world. Quickly, however, his plan evolved into an architectural acropolis composed of several educational and cultural institutions, including the American Numismatic Society, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the American Geographic Society and the Museum of the American Indian, each housed in its own magnificent structure on Audubon Terrace, a vast urban tract in upper Manhattan overlooking the Hudson River. The New Yorker declared that Huntington had created a veritable “Parnassus.” Some questioned its classical Renaissance architecture, terraces, cascading steps, courtyards, pavilions and gardens. A public project as massive and serious as this, covering so many disciplines, Huntington believed, required classical proportion and gravitas. In 1911, the architect filled in the last available site on Audubon Terrace with the magnificent Church of Our Lady of Esperanza, only the second Spanish Roman Catholic church in the city. Eventually, the vast Sculpture Court, which traverses the entire length of the complex, would feature a heroically scaled equestrian statue of El Cid, created by his future wife, Anna Hyatt.

If the exteriors of the buildings that form the complex are classical, the interiors of the Hispanic museum and its collection are definitely Spanish. Huntington traveled frequently to Spain, to confer with leading scholars and politicians, but also to meet people from all walks of life, to get a feel for Spanish customs, traditions and culture. Now, a hundred years later, the Hispanic population of the United States is fifty million strong, forming the single largest ethnic group of Americans. The Hispanic Society constitutes the most extensive collection of Hispanic art and literature outside of Spain and Latin America. The collection offers a panoramic survey of Spanish painting and drawing, from the middle ages up to the early twentieth century, with particular strengths in the Golden Age (1550–1700) and the nineteenth century. The collection includes one of the great paintings of the world: Diego Velázquez’s portrait Gaspar de Guzmán, Conde-Duque de Olivares (c. 1625–26), along with masterpieces by Francisco de Goya, Francisco de Zubarán, Bartolomé Estaban Murillo and Domenikos Theotokopolos, the transplanted Greek, via Venice and Rome, known as El Greco.

Velázquez’s austere masterpiece is deceptively simple to describe. A single figure, Gaspar de Guzmán, dressed in black velvet, stands in front of a dark, royal purple drape, along the edge of a table, against a blank wall. The color is even simpler to describe, almost monochromatic. Variations in alizarin crimson run from deep rich blacks to the faintest rosy twilight hues. Within the aesthetic confines of this simple composition swarm the most exquisite variations of form, chiaroscuro, tone and texture, applied with the phlegmatic brush- 

Diego VelazquezThe negative spaces—empty areas of the composition, particularly the shadows cast by the figure and drapery on the floor—register on the sensory perception of the viewer as powerfully as the details of the figure itself. The clever distribution of highlights on the face and hands, gold trim on costume and drape, move the viewer’s eye around the canvas. The discovery, by Manet and Degas, of the works of this seventeenth-century master 200 years later would transform nineteenth-century French art.

Huntington acquired these works directly, without the benefit of intermediaries or dealers, although his mother, Arabella, had enormous influence. It was due to her financial generosity that the six institutional buildings and the church were built on Audubon Terrace. She had encouraged Archer’s scholarship and appreciation of beauty and bought several masterpieces for their homes, including Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer (1653), later acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Huntington wrote accomplished poetry throughout his life. In 1936, he created an endowment for a Consultant in Poetry, now officially the Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress, which continues to provide a stipend of $40,000 per year.

Huntington’s fascination with the ancient past of the Hispanic world led him to sponsor significant archaeological expeditions and excavations in Spain, particularly near Seville, the birthplace of the Roman emperors Hadrian and Trajan. The Hispanic Society contains the most important collection of Spanish antiquities in the United States, from the Bronze Age through the period of Roman rule. In addition to ancient and classical sculpture, the collection contains early Islamic and Christian works. Ceramics represent a significant part of the collection, ranging from 3,000-year-old Bell-Beaker pottery to contemporary works. The collection of Spanish lusterware, numbering over 150 pieces, is considered the finest in the country. This distinctly Spanish style of ceramic flourished between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, as artisans combined Islamic and Western traditions. Other decorative arts include silver, glassware, secular and ecclesiastical furniture, decorative ironwork and textiles from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

Most importantly, the Library of the Hispanic Society contains more than 600,000 books, manuscripts and letters from the tenth century to the present day, offering unparalleled resources for researchers. The manuscripts and rare books section comprises over 15,000 books printed before 1701, including at least 250 incunabula (books printed before 1500). This is the most extensive collection of medieval manuscripts, illuminated bibles, and historical and literary manuscripts to be found outside Spain, including first editions of Don Quixote, Tirant lo Blanc and Celestina. Royal Cortissoz, the American art historian and critic, called the museum “a miniature Prado.”6

In 1908, Huntington traveled to London searching for Spanish art for his new museum. At the Grafton Gallery, he discovered works by Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863–1923) and purchased several large Impressionist-style paintings, including Sea Idyll (1908) and After the Bath (1908). These beach scenes of contemporary Spanish life evidence the best qualities of early French Impressionism, with their fluid painterly brushwork, flattened aerial space, bright colors and thoughtful formal compositions. One big difference separates the Spaniard’s work from those of his French Impressionist counterparts, the same difference that separates the works of Velázquez from those of Manet—Sorolla’s thoughtful attention to the faces and character of the people. Immediately, Huntington arranged for a retrospective of Sorolla’s work, the first exhibition at the Hispanic Society.

The 1909 exhibit was a blockbuster. Some 170,000 people attended, and 195 paintings were sold, not including commissioned portraits. In 1911, after exhibitions in Boston and Chicago, Sorolla received an invitation from Huntington to decorate the Hispanic Society Library with a series of historical portraits of illustrious Spaniards. Sorolla was reticent to take on a project with a historicist approach. Instead, he suggested a series of genre paintings, with an emphasis on Spanish costumes, ceremony and culture. Huntington agreed. He was also persuaded by the new decorative murals commissioned by his mother from the artists Elihu Vedder and Francis Lathrop, for the house she kept in New York, and the new murals for the Boston Public Library painted by John Singer Sargent. He left the subject matter in Sorolla’s hands. “The only thing that matters to Sorolla in this world is his art,” Huntington wrote. “He works how I like to work and because of that we get along.”7 

It would be a heroic, ten-year undertaking, requiring many research trips across Spain by the artist. Huntington had generously offered him $150,000, but money wasn’t important; he was already famous and rich. Sorolla was driven by patriotism and love of his native land. Visíon de España, installed in 1926 in the Sorolla Gallery, consists of fourteen mural-size canvases, depicting the people, genre, landscapes and customs of nine major regions of Spain, including Navarra, Aragón, Valencia and Seville. The entire ensemble measures 230 feet wide and 12 feet high. Each of the fourteen paintings was composed from life sketches made in the open air, with figures depicted at full life-size. Sorolla preferred to approach each painting in an independent and autonomous manner, making the overall work a juxtaposition of individual scenes and panoramas, of bullfighting, Holy Week processions, dances, marketplaces, courtship, fishing and boating. The boldness of several large plein-air studies of everyday people, such as Types from Soria (1912) and Types from the Ansó Valley (1914), evidence an aesthetic power and insight that elevate them to finished works. Most striking of the murals at the Hispanic Society are the haunting hooded images of The Penitents, Seville (1913) and The Round-Up, Andalucia (1914).

Navarra: El Concejo del RoncalIn 2009, one hundred paintings by the Valencian master, including the panels from Visíon de España, were exhibited at the Prado in Madrid and other Spanish venues, where they attracted over 2,000,000 visitors. During their absence, extensive renovations were made on the Sorolla Gallery, including a new copper-covered stainless steel roof. In May 2010, Visíon de España was re-installed at the Hispanic Society.

The refurbishment of this remarkable institution presents a challenge for the future. The visitor is reminded of the original vision Huntington had for Audubon Terrace as an American Parnassus, a sacred place for the ancient gods and the muses, a place of learning and the arts. To this purpose, Huntington built an oasis at the top of Manhattan island overlooking the Hudson River. James Audubon, the naturalist and artist, on whose former land the complex sits, is buried here. Among the well-known architects who designed the handsome classical structures were Cass Gilbert, Stanford White and Charles Pratt Huntington (Archer’s cousin). Audubon Terrace was designated a historic district by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1979, and listed on the U.S. National Register in 1980. Unfortunately, some buildings are now empty. The American Geographical Society, the American NumismaticSociety and the Museum of the American Indian have relocated. In May 2010, Bancaja, a major financial consortium in Spain, entered into a five-year patronage agreement with the Hispanic Society to support and promote joint cultural projects. Banjaca sponsored the Sorolla retrospective at the Prado, and is responsible for the new renovations to the Sorolla Gallery. The Hispanic Society and Banjaca have already announced several joint projects, including an exhibition of the museum’s collection of 175,000 photographs of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century Spain, many of which inspired Sorolla in the creation of his regional panels for Visíon de España. A second scheduled exhibition will be a retrospective of the Society’s collection of Spanish painting, 1850–1920. In the center of the plaza that runs the length of this precious enclave is the large equestrian statue of El Cid by Anna Hyatt Huntington, holding aloft a spear in a commanding gesture, summoning some invisible army. We hope it will become a symbol for renewed activity in scholarship and culture for the entire area.

The Hispanic Society of America and the reference library are open to the public free of charge. Located on Audubon Terrace at Broadway, between 155th and 156th Streets. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sunday, 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. There are free tours every Saturday at 2:00 p.m. Telephone (212) 926-2234. On the web at


1. Mary Mitchell, Albert Goodrich, The Remarkable Huntingtons: Chronicle of a Marriage (Newton, Connecticut: Budd Drive Press, 2004), p. 19.
2. Ibid., p. 29.
3. Ibid., p. 91.
4. Mitchell A. Codding, The Hispanic Society of America: A Centennial Celebration (New York: The Hispanic Society of America, 2004), p. 9.
5. Ibid., p. 9.
6.. Robert Stern, Gregory Gilmartin and John Massengale, New York 1900: Metropolitan Architecture and Urbanism 1890–1915 (New York: Rizzoli, 1995), p. 107.
7. Blanca Pons-Sorolla, “Sorolla, Huntington and The Hispanic Society” (New York: The Hispanic Society of America, 2010), p. 1.

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2010, Volume 27, Number 4