THE collection of Mr. William M. Hunt’s paintings, recently placed on exhibition at the gallery of Williams and Everett, has afforded a rare opportunity for the study of this artist in a variety of moods. It is evident that the works were selected and arranged so as to call attention most effectively to their peculiar individual qualities, and they certainly testify most eloquently to the great talents of the author of them. The pictures have a force, a virility, a physique, — if the term may be used, — that speaks at once to every spectator. They are direct and impulsive transcriptions of nature from motives of varying interest and beauty, yet of equal importance in the eyes of the artist who studied them. In other words, they are all rendered with equal enthusiasm.
The paintings are not highly finished; several of them are little more than rough sketches and quick impressions made at once, in hot blood. Every artist knows the value of studies made with absorbing energy. The more complete and well-reasoned picture fails to convey the same strong sentiment of nature that is found in the impulsive preliminary sketches. Two or three of Mr. Hunt’s studies demand consideration from the very fact of their being made with a vigorous swing that preserves its vitality only as its course is uninterrupted. Some of their qualities are not possible in more finished works, except, perhaps, in the productions of the greatest masters. What Mr. Hunt has lost by ignoring finish he has much more than made up by vigor and simplicity. He has made his choice of the manner most congenial to his artistic temperament ; the public may accept or reject the results.
The landscapes, with the exception of a bright little view on a river bank, are all mournful in feeling. In the sad tones of the skies, in the mellow richness of the ground, in the sober hues of the foliage and in the simplicity of the lines of composition, there is a sentiment of solemn quiet, which even occasional masses of warm rich color do not dispel, but rather heighten by contrast. The most important of them is a large picture of a team of horses and cattle plowing on a hill-side. The slope rises gently, and meets the gray sky in a simply curved line broken only at one end by the small masses of distant tree-tops. The light in the sky is concentrated on a great cloud in the centre, that seems to light up the landscape by its strong reflection. Across the broad mass of the slope covered with a warm-hued turf is the dark line of freshly turned earth, and the forms of the horses and oxen tugging at the plow come up strongly against the yellow of the dry grass. The action of the animals is admirably given ; they feel their weight and the resistance of the plowshare. They are planted firmly on their feet, and their movements are carefully studied. The figures of the driver and of the man holding the plow are both well understood and broadly put in. Evidently the motive of the picture is not the landscape, with the solid, rich tones, the strong sky effect, and the grandly simple lines ; it is the vigorous action of the cattle and horses as they move along with strained muscles and knotted veins, turning the heavy furrow. The general tone of the picture is low and strong, and, with the exception of the concentrated light on the cloud, which does not altogether keep its place, the harmony is complete. It is a work essentially masculine in character and painted directly from the shoulder. Two other landscapes of medium size are quite as strong in tone as the large one, while naturally enough less simple in composition, since they depend for their interest on the natural features of the scene, rather than on any accessories of animals or the like. One of them is a study of trees in autumn foliage, with a bit of river and wooded bank in the distance. The juicy tones of the autumn leaves and withered grass, the fine gray of the sky, and the strong distance are the chief charms of the picture, although the composition may be commended for its natural arrangement. The second landscape is from a motive simple in itself, but interesting from the effect of light and beauty of the tone. In the foreground is a massive group of trees with a stone wall bounding a broad field that rises in an unbroken mass to the summit of a low hill in the distance. Under the trees and in the immediate foreground is a dark pool of water, and a spotted cow feeding. The sky is covered with fully modeled gray clouds, and contrasts strongly with the warm tones of the hill-side and the dark mass of the foliage of the trees. The outof-door feeling is unmistakable, and to achieve this result was doubtless the artist’s aim. The smaller studies comprise a sketch of a pond and overhanging trees, with what appears to be a part of a factory building ; a domestic landscape with a clump of trees in the foreground, a low house in the distance, and a sky with light clouds ruddy and golden at the horizon ; the bright little river bank alluded to above, and a pastel drawing of an autumn landscape, with broad, warm masses of color on the ground and the delicate lines of birch-trees with scattered leaves twinkling in the strong light. Perhaps the last-mentioned study gives the best impression of the season it represents.
Among the studies of the figure, the portrait of Professor Agassiz in full profile is the most prominent for vigor of line, sculpturesque quality of modeling, and well-rendered character. It is a strong likeness and an agreeable portrait, without being altogether realistic in color or in texture of flesh. The study of a lady with her back to the Spectator, and head turned so as to look over her shoulder, is in quite another mood. The pose is graceful and feminine, the color warm and delicate. In the portrait of Agassiz we feel the presence of the man; in the study of the lady there is less personality but more evident preoccupation of the artist with the natural grace of the pose and the delicacy of color. Both are equally effective in entirely different directions. The head of a Spanish boy, slightly foreshortened from below, is rich and daring in general tone, and carries well as a spot of fresh, brilliant color. The type of the face is admirable, and the picturesque shock of hair and coarse garments are quite in keeping with the character of the model. The head of a little Italian girl is bewitching in the naïve expression of the face. The ever-varying forms about the mouth and the constantly changing planes of the plump cheeks of the little model were full of difficulties, and the artist has made the representation of them appear the simplest matter in the world. A study in profile of a shy little girl dressed in pink is not without a great charm in the natural simplicity of the pose, but the color is less agreeable than in the other heads. There is no better example of Mr. Hunt’s method of seizing at once those characteristic features of his subject which impress him the most deeply, than the preliminary study for a full length portrait of a boy in dark red velvet, holding a sword. There is the perfect action of the body and the limbs, the easy pose of the head with its mass of light hair, and the unmistakable character of the whole figure. It may be a good portrait without necessarily being a perfect likeness, for one may recognize the boy by his own peculiar action. A study of a girl playing on a mandolin deserves mention as distinct in motive and successful in treatment. It is purely decorative, full of musical grace and dignity.
Mr. Hunt’s pictures seen together gain decidedly by contrast. They bear witness to his preoccupation with the strength and variety of general tone, with the salient points of character of landscape or figure. Whoever analyzes them must confess that they represent the artist’s impression of nature, even if the loose way in which many of them are treated may not be altogether agreeable to the eye accustomed to porcelain finish and carefully blended contours. In the effective way in which Mr. Hunt communicates his impressions, in his earnest and frank manner of painting, and in the highly artistic quality of his productions, he stands alone among American painters.
— The greater part of the art produced at the present time may be said to be self-conscious art. Those artists who are the most successful in their profession, if popular approbation and pecuniary gains may be termed success, are the ones who constantly come before the public with works that demand attention in proportion to the startling originality of their conception, or the strangeness of their execution. Tours-deforce in painting have the success of the salons abroad and of our galleries at home, and plain, honest endeavors are often turned to the wall for years, until from their persistency they receive recognition. And this is natural enough, too ; the same rule works in every profession and in every occupation. When success comes to the artist who has spent the greater part of his life in telling his simple stories in his own way and without an audience, it is none the less unqualified because it comes late, and oftentimes the reward long delayed is sweeter and more welcome in declining years. The histories of Corot and Millet should encourage every honest worker in the profession.
A number of pictures by George Fuller, lately hung in the gallery of Doll and Richards, have the element of unconsciousness that is the more choice for its extreme rarity in works of art. Mr. Fuller’s artistic career has been a strange one. A score of years ago he painted in Boston with little or no success, and failed to make his way in New York, whither he went in the hope of securing patronage. Since that time he has been living on a farm of his own in Deerfield, Massachusetts, and has, until lately, we believe, almost entirely given up painting. The old love is now upon him again, it is said, and he paints with all his accustomed feeling. In the collection of his works exhibited there are six heads of remarkable beauty, painted, with one or two exceptions, twenty years ago. They are noble in character, distinguished in color, vigorous in execution ; they are unpretending, earnest studies of one who in his seclusion painted only as he was able, without a thought or a care of how others worked, and yet evidently directed in his labor by his previous experience and training, It may be that the artist, if he had painted the heads for exhibition, would have been tempted to indulge in the endeavor to conform his manner to the popular standard. Few are strong enough to resist the pressure from the consideration of what the world is going to say about it. As it is, he is utterly unconscious. One of the heads he calls Fifteen, and quotes, —
Where the brook and river meet,
Womanhood and childhood fleet.”
It is a girl’s head in three-quarters view, with brown hair, dark dress, and a bit of lace at the throat. The face is pure and sweet in expression, the tones of the flesh are pearly and fresh, and the forms full and child-like. It is charming in its innocence and purity, and lovelier eyes rarely look out from canvas. Two other studies of the heads and shoulders of young girls are both full of grace. One of them is looking over her shoulder with a frank, school-girl expression, her ruddy cheeks and bright eyes full of youth and health. A study in profile of a child’s head against a sombre background is a bright bit of sunny flesh-color. The light on the cheek is broad and warm, and the features are in a cool, well-modeled shadow. The texture of the cheek rmd temple is open and loose, giving mystery and freshness to the tone. The manner in which the color is caressed on the cheek and modeled toward the shadow quire recalls some master. A study of a boy reading is one of the later works. It is so thoroughly earnest, so serious, as to be almost solemn. It is a country boy, but dignified and exalted almost to nobility by the honesty of the purpose with which it is painted. There is a certain dryness in the color of this head not noticeable in the others, but found again in both landscapes. In neither case does this quality detract from the interest of the picture, and in one of the landscapes, the autumn study, it is even commendable, it harmonizes so well with the sentiment of the scene. This landscape is peculiar in tone, full of grays and russets and brown reds. Gently sloping hill-sides covered with dry grass and leaves in the foreground, and crowned with tall trees in the distance, is a simple enough motive. The great interest lies in the wonderfully sympathetic manner in which it is treated. The drapery of the figure in the foreground, the falling leaves that fill the air, and the motion of the branches show that a fresh autumn breeze is blowing ; everywhere are the rustle of the withered foliage and the twinkle of the bright colors of autumn, and yet the unity of the whole is unbroken. As in the heads, the simplicity is the most prominent quality, and the feeling of nature the strongest element. The second landscape is quite as good ; indeed, one forgets one in the presence of the other. It is a path across the fields by the edge of a wood. A dense row of trees comes strongly against the sky, and through the opening where the road passes is seen in the distance the roofs of a village. In the foreground are a flock of sheep and a woman’s figure. The detail is abundant, but it is so handled as to pre serve the breadth and the quiet of the land scape; the bit of distance is charming, and the sheep are carefully studied and well understood. The general tone is gray, and a gray peculiar to Mr. Fuller. While it is not a tone that combines, perhaps, the most of the charms found in the rich landscape, it suggests the poverty of the soil, the harshness of the climate, and the dryness of the atmosphere. The landscape is characteristic and natural, and has many points of delicate and refined color. The most important condition of good art is also satisfied,— it is full of sentiment. There is nothing in the display that more positively asserts the strong feeling of the artist than a small, half-finished study of two children in a doorway, eating lunch. It is conceived in the spirit of a Millet, and has much of the seriousness and nobility of his work. Nevertheless it is expressed with difficulty; it is not attractive nor skillful in execution; it is sober, almost wan in color. But the story is told with all the love and strength of the artist’s nature. Despite its incompleteness it is a heroic genre.
— The portrait, of a lady in antique costume, by Mr. F. D. Millet, which has recently been on exhibition in Boston and is to go to the Centennial, seems deserving of notice as an important figure-piece executed with a skill and knowledge not often seen among young American painters, and showing some tendencies that are new here. This is the first sizable result that we have seen from an American student who has chiefly formed himself, as Mr. Millet has done, in the Antwerp Academy ; and the first thing in it which strikes us is the masterly molding of the figure, in powerful lines that are felt through the garment, united with a fresh and vigorous way of reproducing the superficial aspect of the stuffs in which the lady is clothed. It would be unjust to say that the picture is solely a study of costume, because of this excellent trait; but certainly the antique toilet has been given with great vigor and nicencss: the rich plaster-hued silk, veined with tendrils and adorned with flat leaves and flowers, the sparkle of the quilted skirt which fills the front, the elaborate bodice and old lace and turquoise jewelry, — all this is charmingly rendered. Considered as a picture, in general terms, however, the work has a certain oddity not wholly to its advantage. Mr. Millet has tried the experiment of placing a light figure against a dark ground, and a curious effect of lifelessness in the face has resulted; but if he has lost in this direction, he has gained in another, for the total effect is one of the most brilliantly decorative description. It is a singular coincidence that this wedding-dress was painted, when worn by the bride for whom it was made, by Copley. Mr. Millet’s treatment is very different from Copley’s usual style, yet there is something in the dignity, polish, and sincerity of his work that reminds ns not a little of that famous portrait-maker. In the matter of complexion he would suffer severely if compared with our Bostonian “ old master; ” but there is a robust energy and a world of minute skill in this painting of Mr. Millet’s which leads us to hope for the most admirable results from him in future.