The backlighted window, designed by Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, is a strange array of Protestant personifications of virtue, cast as secular versions of traditional Catholic saints. Truth holds a candle against the darkness. Faith reaches up to grasp the hand of God. Courage is steeled in armor while Liberty clutches a pair of crimson wings, like an earthly seraph, the highest rank of angel.

Across the Channel

ACOUPLE of surprises are on the second floor. Twenty-two thematic galleries include major works of British art, with powerful landscapes by John Constable and J.M.W. Turner as well as remarkable silver, porcelain and furniture. Despite the Huntington's identification with all things English, however, these galleries also house a notable collection of French art. An excellent, hefty new catalog records 202 French works.

They include a charming Jean-Baptiste Greuze picture of a girl asleep at her knitting, plus a lovely little Antoine Watteau of dancing courtiers. (Look closely and you can see where the rectangular panel was once cut into a circle, then later restored.) Both are from Pasadena's Green collection, acquired in 1978.

Arabella's own French purchases were limited to decorative arts. She likely engineered Henry's 1906 acquisition of the five Beauvais tapestries downstairs in the library -- his first big-ticket purchase. In today's inflation-adjusted currency, he paid $13.3 million, more than the cost of the house.

In the smart new catalog, Huntington curator Shelley M. Bennett explains why French decoration made sense amid the collectors' fervor for British art. British nobility, long attuned to the power of theater, used French décor to give themselves a gloss of old dynastic status. The avaricious Americans followed suit, setting the stage to transform vulgar new money into genteel old.

Henry underscored his late wife's Francophile enthusiasms with a memorial 1927 acquisition of Jean-Antoine Houdon's amazing, life-size bronze cast of Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt. A nude, her sex is shockingly exposed. Yet the display is also in perfect harmony with Houdon's effortless naturalism, shown in a massive striding figure balanced lightly on the ball of a single foot.

Think of it as a symbolic portrait of Belle. It introduces rooms that house a small selection of her Renaissance and Old Master works, notably Rogier van der Weyden's rare, exquisite "Madonna and Child" (circa 1460). Not 20 inches high, Rogier's golden devotional panel majestically fuses divinity and humanity.

The young mother's face registers sweet sorrow. She dandles a haloed infant whose nakedness is revealed, while his baby face merges with that of a wise elder. Mary's soft right hand gently steadies him. But her left hand clutching the Bible, which tells of his coming sacrifice, is contorted in anguish. The boy fumbles with the book's clasp, as any inquisitive child might do, while momentously unlocking the spiritual mystery inside. The greatest Renaissance picture in L.A., it's the Huntington's most important painting,

The compleat "Blue Boy"

BUT IT'S not the best known. In fact, Gainsborough's "The Blue Boy" is surely the most famous European Old Master painting in the U.S.

In 1944 a young naval neuropsychiatric technician stationed in San Diego hitchhiked to San Marino during leave to visit the Huntington's cactus gardens. Robert Rauschenberg, then 19, wandered into the art gallery and saw "The Blue Boy," which the sailor from Texas knew from cocktail napkins and playing cards, and had a sudden epiphany.

"It dawned on me that this was something other than magazine illustration," the celebrated artist, who died this month, told The Times four decades later. "I don't know how I stayed so stupid for so long, but it never occurred to me [until then] there was such a thing as painting."

Twenty-three years earlier, Henry and Belle were on board the Aquitania sailing to Europe. Their stateroom, the Gainsborough Suite, adjoined that of their traveling companion, art dealer extraordinaire Joseph Duveen. They got to talking about the reproduction of "The Blue Boy" in the dining room, which Duveen shrewdly explained hung at London's Grosvenor House, owned by the duke of Westminster, and could not be had at any price. Henry promptly agreed to pay more than any painting was then known to have fetched.

"Los Angeles Man Buys 'Blue Boy' " announced The Times headline on Nov. 14, 1921. The Huntingtons were out about $728,800 -- nearly $7.5 million in today's dollars -- but the transfer was lateral. The duke was said to be England's richest peer, Arabella's aristocratic equivalent.

Surely Belle-the-huntress was pleased. Remember the portraits of women displayed in the small drawing room? Among them is Romney's sultry picture of Emma Hart, notorious Lady Hamilton, at the tender age of 17 or 18. A huge straw hat shades her eyes, and she's tossing one of the great come-hither looks of all time.

The presence of "that Hamilton woman!" -- later the mistress of Admiral Nelson -- can't help but reflect on Belle's own clouded past. Born in Alabama circa 1850 and married to a local (though, suspiciously, neither a birth certificate nor a marriage license exists), she hooked up with the ruthless Sacramento railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington, 30 years her senior, who had done a brisk business in bribing politicians for favorable corporate legislation. He likely fathered her son, Archer. She and Collis married in 1884, but despite their vast wealth, New York and San Francisco society wouldn't give them the time of day.

Thirteen years after Collis died, she married his nephew, Henry, who had inherited one-third of his uncle's $450-million estate (in today's dollars). That gave Henry the necessary cash to put into his interlocking businesses, essential to inventing suburban L.A. -- a trolley network connecting far-flung land holdings, run on electric power distribution.

And it gave the rest of Collis' fortune back to Belle. She had been advising Henry on plans for the San Marino estate since he first conceived of it. At Duveen's shop alone, the couple spent more than $360 million on art and antiques over the next 10 years.

Belle hated Southern California, preferring Paris instead, so much of her art did not end up in San Marino. But the project made the Huntingtons the region's original power couple. And it made them plutocratic innovators in the emerging mythos of Los Angeles as the ideal place to reinvent your life, which Hollywood soon democratized.

christopher.knight@latimes.com