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William Morris Hunt

 (1824 - 1879)
William Morris Hunt was active/lived in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont.  William Hunt is known for portrait, landscape, genre and figure painting.

William Morris Hunt

    HUNT    click to hear

Biography from the Archives of askART

One of the most influential and respected artists in Boston during the late 19th century, William Morris Hunt was a leading proponent of the French Barbizon School of painting, the precursor of Impressionism.  He was a landscape, genre, and portrait painter, a highly respected teacher, and widely read writer.  His engaging personality combined with his talents to make him the leading arbiter of aesthetics in New England where he was one of the first artists to inject French influence.

Hunt was born in Brattleboro, Vermont and was raised in New Haven, Connecticut. He was from a prominent family that included his brother Richard Morris Hunt, the architect of the Vanderbilt houses "Biltmore" and "The Breakers."  William Hunt had a lively personality and was considered a witty, non-conforming man who did not stay on the traditional path to academic success.

He attended Harvard University where he studied sculpture with Henry Kirke Brown, but weakened health caused him to leave after his sophomore year to study in Europe.  In 1845, he enrolled in the Dusseldorf Academy but feeling weary of academic training went to Paris to study with Antoine-Louis Barye, the animal sculptor, and from 1846 to 1852 with academic and then Barbizon painter, Thomas Couture.

Again rebelling against the rigidity of academia, Hunt gravitated towards the French landscape painters, especially Jean-Francois Millet, who had fled studio painting for Barbizon, a French village.  There they depicted rural scenes, usually with peasants working in the fields, and focused on capturing the naturalness and spontaneity of the moment as they saw it.

In 1855, Hunt returned to the United States, going first to Newport, Rhode Island and completed a number of sentimental Barbizon-style paintings with cows, obviously innocent children, and virginal-appearing nudes.

In 1862, he moved to Boston where he married the daughter of a wealthy Boston banker, and, well-connected socially, much influenced Boston taste as the proponent of Barbizon style painting.  Because fellow-Bostonian Seth Vose shared Hunt's appreciation for the Barbizon school, Hunt was a key promoter of Vose as an art dealer.

Hunt frequented rural coastal areas in Massachusetts and became especially associated with Cape Ann and Gloucester.  His spontaneous paintings such as Gloucester Harbor, dated 1877 and now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, were rapidly executed in the manner of Impressionism, which was ground breaking for an American artist.  However, he was set apart from his Impressionist successors by his careful attention to composition and execution, and his underlying less-emotional realism.

He also had mural commissions including the capital building at Albany, New York.  In 1878, shortly after completing this work, Hunt drowned in circumstances at the Shoals of Appledore, near Portsmouth, New Hampshire where he had been staying at the home of Celia Thaxter.   Of his death and her familiarity with the circumstances leading up to it, Laura Marquand Walker, a student and friend of Thaxter's and Hunt's wrote:  "In 1879, after he completed his decoration The Discoverer for the Senate Chamber in the Albany State House, William Hunt went to the Shoals for a rest.  He had apparently been suffering from nervousness for some time.  As a young girl I had noticed he was a kind man with beautiful traits and that he had many good friends who believed in him.  Yet he was one of the loneliest of men and doomed to live away from his home, which he so much needed.  Hunt was a man devoted to children but separated from his own because he and his wife could not be happy together.  Alas, one day, he decided he could not bear to live any longer and so he ended his life.  He was found floating in a little pond not far from Aunt Celia's house.  . . .Only months before the New York Legislature approved a bill allocating one hundred thousand dollars for Hunt to decorate the Assembly.  Then there was further news that Governor Robinson later vetoed the Bill.  It was a terrible disappointment to Hunt and he had been inconsolable." (Walker, 30)

Written by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier

Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Laura Marquand Walker and Fern K. Meyers, Beyond a Gilded Cage

Biography from the Archives of askART
William Morris Hunt attended Harvard College, studied sculpture with J.C. King ; traveled through France and Italy ; studied in Rome with H.K. Browne and E. Leutze (1844 or 1845) ;  enrolled to study in Dussseldorf Academy(1845), but left to study with A.L. Barye in Paris ; studied in Paris (1846-52) under Couture ; in Barbizon, France (1853-55) under Millet.
He taught classes in Boston (1868-1879)
His works are located at:
David Winton Bell Gallery:
1. Lithograph, "Boy Street Singer"

Newport Art Museum:
1. Bronze bas relief, "The Flight of Night" (ca.1894-7) (acc.# PA1987.003.024)

Building location: Kingscote
1. Portrait painting, "Portrait of T. Wheaton King" (1865) (acc.# PSNC.6689)

1. Oil painting on wood panel, "Mother and Children" (Mid-late 19th c.) (acc.# 13.788)
2. Oil painting on canvas, "Farm Scene" (ca. 1866-67) (acc.# 13.789)
3. Oil painting on cardboard, "Portrait of a Woman" (19th c.) (acc.# 31.248)
4. Oil painting on canvas, "Portrait of Mrs. Mary A. Shaw" (1875) (acc.# 35.532)
5. Oil painting on canvas, "La Bouquetiere" (The Violet Girl) (1856) (acc.# 72.177)
6. Oil painting on canvas, "Portrait of Ellen M. Brown" (19th c.) (acc.# 77.034)
7. Charcoal drawing, "Riverscape" (19th c.) (acc.# 1991.096.11)

Unveiled: a directory and guide to 19th century born artists active in Rhode Island, and where to find their work in publicly accessible Rhode Island collections by Elinor L. Nacheman

Biography from Pierce Galleries, Inc.
William Morris Hunt was one of the most famous, well-respected American painters during the early and middle 19th century.  His artistic life was observed, revered and followed by many painters in New York and New England, and because of his vast intellect and wisdom regarding fine art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston often followed his suggestions about what to purchase for its collection of European and American art.

Hunt was born on March 31, 1924, in Brattleboro, Vermont, and he died at the Isle of Shoals, New Hampshire of an apparent suicide on November 8, 1879.  He studied at Harvard University; in Dusseldorf,  and in Paris from 1847-1853, and in Barbizon with Millet from 1853-1855.  From 1850-1870, Hunt was Boston's leading portrait painter and in 1979 the Museum of Fine Arts gave him a retrospective.

Hunt was responsible for spreading the influence of Jean Francois Millet and the French Barbizon painters in the United States, and he was a renowned teacher, muralist and portrait painter who conducted classes in Boston from 1868 until his death in 1879.

He is given credit for highly influencing the artistic life of Winslow Homer, John Joseph Enneking and Childe Hassam.  His teaching philosophies were recorded in Helen Knowlton's Talks on Art volumes of 1875 and 1883 and in Knowlton's Life of William M. Hunt in 1899.

Some historians believe that when Hunt's commission to paint murals at the Albany State Capitol fell through, the artist was destitute and depressed, and that this led to his apparent suicide.  Nevertheless, he is still revered as one of the finest painters to have come from New England because his brushwork was beautifully orchestrated and he had complete knowledge about how best to paint a portrait or a landscape.

P.J. Pierce

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia
During the last few decades, exhibitions and publications about the career and art of William Morris Hunt have produced favorable art criticism for this American art icon.  Hunt's name is certainly recognizable as a formidable figure in the development of American art, but perhaps his reputation and skill largely has remained understated.  And yet, Hunt's regard as a teacher opposes any negative criticism he received throughout his lifetime.  His dictates on painting were published by an assistant, and his teaching methods were straightforward and honest.  One of Hunt's proclamations stated, "Artists are supposed to pass their lives in earnest endeavor to express through the medium of paint or pencil, thoughts, feelings, or impressions which they cannot help expressing, and which cannot possibly be expressed by any other means… They expose their work to the public, not for the sake of praise, but with a feeling and a hope that some human being may see in it the feeling that has passed through their own mind in their poor and necessarily crippled statement. The endeavor is honest and earnest, if almost always with a result weakened by over conscientiousness or endeavor to be understood."(1)

Born to an aristocratic New England family, Hunt had ample opportunity to pursue leisurely activities such as music and theatrics, but his primary interest was art.  Although he pursued studies at Harvard, it soon became apparent that academia was not his strong suit.  Hunt's ambitious studies began with John Crookshank King and sculpture in Boston, and eventually led him to the European nineteenth century artistic capitals of Düsseldorf and Paris.  Hunt made the decision to become a professional artist when he was studying with Henry Kirk Browne in Rome.  Another major source of inspiration for Hunt was Emmanuel Leutze, whom he would meet in Rome in late 1844 or early 1845.(2)  In France he followed strong examples such as Thomas Couture and Jean-François Millet of the Barbizon School.  He assimilated teachings from his mentors, ultimately finding his niche with drawing and painting to produce the portraits for which he became highly sought after when he returned to a life in Boston.

An 1872 fire in his studio destroyed much of his extant paintings and became a turning point in Hunt's career as he embraced a new subject matter—landscape painting.

1. William Morris Hunt on Painting and Drawing (New York: Dover Publications, 1976), 76-77. 2. Sally Webster, William Morris Hunt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 11.
Submitted by the staff of the Columbus Museum, Georgia.

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About  William Morris Hunt

Born:  1824 - Brattleboro, Vermont
Died:   1879 - Appledore, Isle of Shoals, New Hampshire
Known for:  portrait, landscape, genre and figure painting

Essays referring to
William Morris Hunt

Impressionists Pre 1940