A house is a blank canvas of sorts, waiting for the homeowners to fill in shapes, textures and colors.
When James “J.R.” Huntsberger built a two-story, red-brick Colonial-style house in Centreville in 1964, he focused on such traditional elements as a large center hall, flanked by a formal dining room on the left and a living room with a fireplace on the right.
There is a spacious family room with a big brick fireplace and stately, wood-paneled walls adjoining a cheerful, light-filled kitchen.
“It was designed to suit a young family,” he recalls. “The layout and design were great—but it still needed decorating.”
A researcher for the DuPont Co., Huntsberger tapped his artistic side to paint colorful canvases to display throughout the house. Painting evolved into a passionate pastime and, ultimately, into a productive second career.
Art continues to define the home where Huntsberger still lives 47 years later with his second wife, Janet.
His children are grown, put the portraits he painted of them as youngsters adorn the walls in the family room. Friends and relatives, who typically come in through a mudroom that forms a casual second entry, are greeted by several of Huntsberger’s landscapes.
“We have so many paintings of J.R.’s, plus the work of other artists we admire, that we use every bit of wall space, even the laundry room and the powder room,” Janet says.
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The first few strokes of Huntsberger’s life were drawn in western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. His mother, Adeline Huntsberger, was an actress who also expressed her artistic sensibilities in painting mannered vignettes of flower arrangements, including the romantic oil of rosy blossoms that is displayed in the studio.
“I’ve loved art since I was a little child,” he says.
He began his studies in science at Bethany College in West Virginia, a time he captured in a painting of the campus that now hangs in his living room.
With a mortgage to pay and a family to feed, there wasn’t much of a budget for art when he first built the house in Delaware. The shoestring was so taut that Huntsberger bought a single sturdy chrysanthemum, painted the bloom and then repositioned the flower multiple times until he created the effect of a lush bouquet. Instead of a red lacquer vase, he blew up a child’s balloon and rubbed it with oil to give it sheen.
“It sounds strange but I painted my own art because it was so much less expensive than buying it,” he says.
After a long and illustrious career in science, Huntsberger is retired and can devote most of his time to art. He paints every day.
Several of his works hang in the Washington, D.C., office of Sen. Tom Carper. When MBNA was building its massive art collection, the bank bought 20 of his paintings, including one of his favorites, “Lafayette’s Quarters,” which depicts a stone house and a large, sculptural sycamore tree, where Lafayette was laid after being wounded at the Battle of the Brandywine. Bank of America now owns the collection.
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Taking down the wall in what was previously a large, second-floor mother-in-law suite gave him enough space for a studio, the digital machinery needed to transform original paintings into prints and an office he shares with his wife. He maintains an inventory of props for still life vignettes, including salt-glazed crocks and metal pots. The desks are positioned back-to-back, partner style.
“The messy desk is mine,” he says.
The Huntsbergers work together to fill orders for prints and schedule commissions for paintings. They collaborated on the book “Our Brandywine: An Artist’s View of His Brandywine Valley Home.”
Living in Chateau Country gave the painter an appreciation for the beauty of local natural treasures. He has captured scenes at Winterthur, Longwood Gardens, Hagley, Valley Garden Park, Brandywine Creek State Park and other natural settings.
His paintings are mannered and traditional—he once painted a canvas in the style of French impressionist Camille Pissarro in an exercise designed “to loosen me up”—and that affinity for balance and harmony is reflected in the interior design of his home.
The dining room is formal yet welcoming, with vintage wood furnishings and comfy upholstered chairs surrounding the dining table. Huntsberger’s idyllic painting of the mill at Hagley, punctuated by the skeleton of a dead tree, hangs above the sideboard.
In the serene living room, three renderings of sheep by Jamie Wyeth are displayed on the wall above a camel-back sofa. Walls are painted gallery white. Huntsberger’s interpretation of vivid flowering trees reflected in the lake at Longwood provides an infusion of color.
Seating upholstered in pale fabrics flanks the fireplace, a classic arrangement. The coffee table is crisp and contemporary, more in keeping with Janet’s modern aesthetic. She introduced her collection of mixed media and paper art into the household more than 20 years ago when she married Huntsberger, a widower.
His portrait of Janet, a subdued smile on her lips and a gleam in her eye, hangs in an alcove off the family room.
“I painted that when we were courting,” he recalls.
Was she impressed?
“I’m here,” Janet says. “There’s your answer.”
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After devoting years to art, Huntsberger is innately suited to provide expert advice on how best to hang a picture.
For collectors who don’t want to make the process too much of a brain buster, there are two simple approaches.
“I like to keep either the tops or the bottoms of the frames aligned,” he says. “If you do that, it’s hard to go wrong.”
Janet adds a caveat: “Be certain to anchor a picture or a mirror by placing it only a foot or two above a heavy object, such as a sofa or sideboard. If you leave paintings hanging in space, they look lost and lonely.”
Think of the frame and the mat as an extension of the artwork. “You can have a really wide mat on a small painting and make a great display,” Huntsberger says.
He eschews the practice of matting artwork to match wall colors or draperies. “Mat the painting, not the decor,” he says. “A piece of art makes a statement on its own.”
The statement need not be purely decorative. Huntsberger has produced an artistic travelogue of sorts, painting scenes that range from fern-lined stone steps at a castle in Ireland to low tide after a storm at Wells Beach, Maine.
“I take a referral photo of everything I paint,” he says. “In a photograph, you don’t have to worry about variables, like the weather.”
Because their collection is so large, the Huntsbergers have transformed a second-floor hallway into a private gallery. Tract lighting is mounted on the ceiling. The walls are lined with still life oils, pastoral scenes from Chester and New Castle counties and a streetscape of a centuries-old passage in Strasbourg, France.
It’s a design solution that can readily be translated to just about any home, where there is a large collection of family photographs, maps or lithographs, in addition to paintings and prints.
“Good lighting is what makes a gallery,” Huntsberger says. “You need light to be able to see and appreciate the art you love.”