William Morris Hunt

(31 March 1824 - 8 September 1879)

Portrait and mural painter, born in Brattleboro, Vermont, 1824, to Jane Maria (Leavitt) Hunt and Hon. Jonathan Hunt, who raised one of the preeminent families in American art. William Morris Hunt was the leading painter of mid-19th-century Boston, Massachusetts; died at Appledore, Isles of Shoals, New Hampshire. Studied at Royal Academy, later went to Düsseldorf. Went to Paris, studied under Couture, then to Barbizon and studied under Millet. In 1855 returned to America, and in 1862 took permanent studio at Boston.

Hunt's father's family, the Hunt family of Vermont, were among Vermont's founders and largest landowners; his mother's a family of wealth and prominence in Connecticut. Hunt attended Harvard College but withdrew in his junior year. Having been denied the opportunity to paint and draw by an overbearing father, Jane Leavitt Hunt resolved that her children would be given the chance to study the arts in the best academies -- even if it meant moving to Europe to attend them.

Following the untimely death of his Congressman father from cholera, Hunt's mother Jane took him and his brothers to Switzerland, the South of France and to Rome, where Hunt studied with Couture in Paris and then came under the influence of Jean-François Millet, from whom he learned the principles of the Barbizon school. The Hunt family remained in Europe for a dozen years. During part of that time Richard Morris Hunt and his brother William shared an apartment at 1 rue Jacob, close by the École des Beaux-Arts, where William Morris Hunt studied painting under Thomas Couture. "From the training and inspiration each of the brothers was to experience in the next several years in France would come great strides for each in his work," writes historian David McCullough. "'Mr. William Hunt is our most promising artist here,' reported Thomas Appleton to his father."

Afterwards, leaving Paris, he painted and established art schools at Newport, Rhode Island, where he had relatives, Brattleboro, Vermont, Faial Island in the Azores, where he had family connections and finally at Boston, where he painted, taught art and became a popular portrait painter.

The companionship of Millet had a lasting influence on Hunt's character and style, and his work grew in strength, in beauty and in seriousness. He was among the biggest proponents of the Barbizon school in America, and he more than any other turned the rising generation of American painters towards Paris.

On his return in 1855, he painted some of his most handsome canvases, all reminiscent of his life in France and of Millet's influence. Such are The 'Belated Kid', 'Girl at the Fountain', 'Hurdy-Gurdy Boy', and others -- but the public called for portraits, and it became the fashion to sit for Hunt; among his best paintings of this genre are those of William M. Evarts, Mrs. Charles Francis Adams, the Rev. James Freeman Clarke, Senator Charles Sumner, William H. Gardner, Chief Justice Shaw and Judge Horace Gray.

Sadly, many of Hunt's paintings and sketches, together with five large Millets and other art treasures collected by him in Europe, were destroyed in the Great Boston Fire of 1872. Hunt owned many canvases by Millet, including Millet's 'The Sower', for which Millet somewhat unwillingly accepted a payment of $60 from Hunt.

Among his later works American landscapes predominated. In the summer of 1878, the year before his death, Hunt painted a series of sweeping views of Niagara Falls. His later works also include the 'Bathers: Twice Painted' and 'The Allegories' for the Assembly Chamber of the State Capitol at Albany, New York, now lost due to disintegration of the stone panels on which they were painted. (Some scholars trace Hunt's deepening depression that led to his suicide to his despair over the loss of the Albany murals). His book, Talks about Art (London, 1878), was especially well received.

Nor did Hunt confine himself to oil painting. He was prolific, working as a lithographer and sculptor as well. From 1850 to 1877, the Vermont native was Boston's leading portrait and landscape painter; there was a backlog of Brahmins clamoring to be painted by him. Hunt is widely credited for having influenced the styles of Winslow Homer, Childe Hassam and John Joseph Enneking. Hunt's signature lively brushwork, partly derived from study of contemporary European painting, marked a new phase in 'oil sketching' that was carried on by Homer and others. Other friends and associates included artist Frank Hill Smith.

"The greatest of Boston painters", writes art historian G. W. Sheldon in his American Painters, "and one of the few really great American painters, Mr. William Morris Hunt, was born in Brattleboro, Vermont." While a friend and student of Millet, "Hunt is an entirely original artist, and every picture of his is a spontaneous and independent product." In a bit of art history revisionism, some scholars are now re-examining Hunt's powerful pull on other early New England artists, many better-known.

In 1855 Hunt was married in Paris to Louise Dumaresq Perkins, daughter of Thomas Handasyd Perkins, Jr., a Boston merchant, philanthropist and patron of the arts. William Morris Hunt was an important figure in New England arts and society, helping to turn the attention of the cognoscenti towards development in the European art world. Besides collecting himself, Hunt encouraged other Boston collectors to buy works by European artists such as Millet, Claude Monet and others.

After one early exhibition of French artists at the Boston Athenaeum including works by Millet and Rousseau, for instance, an art professor at Harvard had written a condemnation in a Boston newspaper. Outraged, painter Hunt fired back a response in The Boston Daily Advertiser. "It is not our fault we inherit ignorance in art," Hunt wrote, "but we are not obliged to advertise it."

In 1867, for instance, Hunt and his wife sailed to Paris to attend the opening of the Exposition Universelle. In his lectures and art classes, Hunt attracted large numbers of students, many of them from prominent Brahmin families. The Boston philosopher and author William James studied with Hunt for a time, before turning away from painting to concentrate on his writing. In 1871 Hunt was elected into the National Academy of Design as an Associate Academician.

Certainly Hunt's career owed a debt to Boston's intellectual ferment. A luncheon at his club on February 27, 1870, for instance, found these members of Hunt's circle dining together: Ralph Waldo Emerson; James Russell Lowell; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; Edward Clarke Cabot; Martin Brimmer; Thomas Gold Appleton; William James; Francis Blackwell Forbes; and James Thomas Fields. Joining the group as guest was Erastus Brigham Bigelow, a founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

William Morris Hunt died at the Isles of Shoals, New Hampshire, in 1879, apparently a suicide. Hunt had gone to the New Hampshire shore to recover from a crippling depression. But he continued to work, executing his last sketch three days before his death. His body was discovered by his friend New Hampshire poet Celia Thaxter.

His brother Richard Morris Hunt was a celebrated architect. His brother Leavitt Hunt was a well-known photographer and attorney. A fourth brother, Jonathan, was a Paris physician who also committed suicide.

The William Morris Hunt Library of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is named in honor of this painter. (Hunt was a founding member of the Museum of Fine Arts' museum school). Following Hunt's death, his Harvard classmates and other Bostonians contributed to a fund to purchase many of his paintings and donate them to the Museum of Fine Arts.

Aside from the Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Athenaeum has a number of the artist's works in its collection, a gift of William Morris Hunt II. Also owning works by Hunt are New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre Museum in Paris, the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Addison Gallery of American Art at Hunt's alma mater Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, the Bennington Museum, Vermont, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the Currier Museum of Art in New Hampshire, the Harvard University Art Museums, Salem's Peabody Essex Museum, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and many others.

In accordance with a long expressed desire, William Morris Hunt was buried beside other family members at Brattleboro, Vermont's Prospect Hill cemetery. Two decades after Hunt's death, his former pupil Helen Mary Knowlton published (1899) her biography of the Boston painter entitled The Art-Life of William Morris Hunt.

William Morris Hunt and his wife, the former Louisa Dumaresq Perkins, had five children. Morris sat for a full-length portrait by the artist Emanuel Leutze in Düsseldorf in 1864. Formerly part of the collection of Col. Leavitt Hunt at Elmshome in Vermont, the location of that portrait is now unknown.

Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.), 1911. Cambridge University Press; Art-Life of William Morris Hunt, Helen M. Knowlton, 1899; The History of the Descendants of John Dwight, of Dedham, Massachusetts, Benjamin Woodbridge Dwight, New York, 1874; The Class of 1844, Harvard College, Fifty Years After Graduation, Prepared by the Class Secretary Edward Wheelwright, John Wilson and Son, Cambridge, 1896; Vermont: A Profile of the Green Mountain State, Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1937; Frank T. Pomeroy, Rudyard Kipling, Picturesque Publishing Company, Northampton, Massachusetts, 1894; William Morris Hunt, Portrait of Katherine Dean Hubbard, ca. 1865, Pierce Galleries, Inc.; Frank Torrey Robinson. Living New England artists: biographical sketches, reproductions of original drawings and paintings by each artist. Boston: S. E. Cassino, 1888; Masters in Art: A Series of Illustrated Monographs, Bates & Guild Company, Boston, Massachusettss, 1908; Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Waldo Emerson Forbes, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1914; Death of William Morris Hunt, The New York Times, September 9, 1879; The Harvard Register: A Monthly Periodical, Vols. I & II, Published by Moses King, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1880; Brattleboro, Windham County, Vermont, Early History with Biographical Sketches of Some of Its Citizens, Henry Burnham, Published by D. Leonard, Brattleboro, Vt., 1880; The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans, Vol. VI, Rossiter Johnson, The Biographical Society, Boston, 1904; en.Wikipedia;

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Self-portrait, 1866 1879 Studio 1879 Portrait of Morris Hunt, son of artist 1857

There will be a thrill of surprise and regret, not unmixed with horror, in the world of art and literature when it is learned that William M. Hunt, the well-known American artist, has taken his own life. This tragical event has just occurred at Appledore Island, on of the Isles of Shoals, off the coast of New Hampshire. The telegram which furnishes the scanty details of the death of Mr. Hunt says that he was in his usual health and spirits when last seen and that he committed suicide by drowning himself in a tank on the island. No clue is given to the cause which led to the suicide. He had been busy about his usual work up to the day of his death. To those who knew the excitable temperment and finely-strung organization of the lamented artist it will at once be suggested that he must have taken his own live while laboring under a fit of temporary insanity. He was an arduous worker and an intense thinker, and it is likely that his mind may have given away under studies and labors too great to be borne.

William Morris Hunt was born in Brattleboro, Vermont, about 55 years of age at the time of his death. Entering Harvard College in 1840, he found, after a few years of study, that his health would not allow him to finish his course, and he sailed for Europe, with the intention of devoting himself to art. His first essay was in sculpture, and he began his studies at Düsseldorf in 1846. After nine months of trial he wisely concluded that color furnished for him a more promising field. He went back to Paris, and in the studio of Couture, he began a career which subsequently brought him fame and fortune. He he imbibed the best ideas of the less recent school of art in France; and when he returned to the United States, in 1855, and set up his studio in Boston, he may be said to have been the first to introduce French art into this country. Enthusiastic and impulsive to a degree beyond the comprehension of most men, Mr. Hunt speedily found himself engaged in many of those controversies which art theories often arouse. He was a devoted champion of his master, somewhat intolerant of those who differed with him, and so well equipped in all the weaponry of debate that he never failed to silence where he might not convince. His more serious and legitimate field of labor was meanwhile never neglected. He painted with enormous industry and energy, and a list of his works would be formidable in length. Among his "Morning Star," "Bugle-Call," "The Lost Kid," "The Choristers," "Girl at Fountain," and "Girl Selling Violets," nearly all of which have been engraved. Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in this City, will recall with delight his "Marguerite," and "Boy Chasing a Butterfly," the property of the artist's brother, Mr. Richard M. Hunt, the well-known architect of this City. A more splendid monument of the powers of this remarkable man is in the Assembly-Chamber of the State Capitol at Albany. His mural paintings, "The Flight of Night," and "The Discoverer," far excel anything of the kind ever before attempted in this country. In portraiture, Mr. Hunt also excelled, and his portraits of Chief-Justice Shaw, of Massachusetts, and Richard H. Dana are reckoned among the masterpieces of American art. An admirable head, "A Portrait of a Gentleman" in the last exhibition of the American Society of Artists, was Mr. Hunt's portrait of himself -- an excellent likeness. While Mr. Hunt excelled in drawing and modeling, his forte was in color. His touch was firm, yet tender, and his hues were at once vivid and deep. Solidity and richness were the most striking characeristics of his work. Mr. Hunt was a brilliant talker, and his studio conversations, as reported and published by one of his pupils, are not the least delightful evidences of genius which, now that he has gone, will deepen our sense of the loss which is sustained by art in his death.

The New York Times, September 9, 1879

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