The Hunt Memorial Exhibition
THE exhibition of the works of the late William Morris Hunt at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has, in addition to the rare artistic value of the display, the unique charm of autobiographical record. Mr. Hunt was a man of superior qualities, and a chapter from his life is sure to be full of interest. Those who were fortunate enough to know him as a friend; those to whom his works have, during his life, appealed in eloquent language; all, indeed, who have observed the influence he wielded over artistic feeling in this community, have found in the memorial exhibition an autobiography of the man as well as the history of the artist. It is, moreover, in more ways than one, a record of the rise and development of the present artistic movement in this country, — a line of progress with which Mr. Hunt was thoroughly identified.
Americans are reputed to have a dormant æsthetic sense. However well founded this reputation might once have been, it is now by no means just. We have always studied too much without absorbing enough through the pores, so to speak. It would be painful to review the condition of art in this country a generation ago. It is enough to know that our art students at the present day, following their inherited impulses, will accept nothing as a fact unless it be thoroughly proven to them. They are too intelligent to follow blindly the lead of a professor. The simple mechanical performance is to them of secondary importance ; the meaning of the thing is of First account. They are stirred through their intellect alone. We have been long trained to reason in artistic matters much more than to feel. This is a natural condition in a community where intellectual asceticism is so highly honored.
Mr. Hunt found us with scarcely an atom of the leaven of artistic sentiment, fairly starved in art. The impulse, if there was any at all, was in the dry channel of the Dusseldorf traditions. His own experience taught him how necessary it was for Americans to assimilate some of the fervor and warmth of French art as the antidote for their birthright of Puritanism. He returned to this country at the close of his studies abroad so charged with the vitality of the French school that he swept along with him in his enthusiasm a host of converts to the doctrines he had accepted. The results of that conversion are seen to-day at every step. The ramifications of this influence cover a vast field. Enthusiasm is always contagious, and Mr. Hunt had no lack of it. His works were characterized by enough technical skill to secure their recognition elsewhere, and had also a certain intellectual quality that made them sure of acceptance here even before they were appreciated in their whole extent. Both by the arguments of his own performances and by his own vigorous speech he led his army of adherents along with him, pari passu, with never-flagging zeal and scarcely diminished energy, to the day of his death. He has left behind him the grandest decorations in the country; a great number of portraits, many of them types of historical interest ; a score or more important. pictures, and thousands of minor works. Some idea of the amount he produced during about thirty years spent in the pursuit of his profession may be gained from the fact that over two hundred charcoal sketches, beside nearly half that number of oil-paintings, were found in his studio after his death.
Mr. Hunt had the first qualification necessary to an artist, — susceptibility to impressions. The exhibition bears ample testimony to this fact. When he first went to France, after a brief stay in Dusseldorf, he studied with Thomas Couture, then in the height of his renown. The method of this master seemed to satisfy the American student, so far as technique went, and he painted The Prodigal Son, La Marguerite, and The Hurdy Gurdy Boy under his influence. Each of these pictures suggest the master very strongly, not so much in their style as in their construction and color. Couture’s art was always more or less artificial, and somewhat sensuous and material. He never painted a head with the exquisite finesse of that of the old man in the first of these three pictures. In the Marguerite also we find the firmness and solidity of Couture, and his peculiar flesh tints with the delicate greenish half tones. Instead of the sweet, womanly figure, Couture would have given us a buxom peasant. Diaz was a frequent visitor to the Couture atelier, and took an interest in the work of Mr. Hunt. It is said also that he did not spare his praises of the student’s work, and compared it favorably with the master’s own productions. Mr. Hunt, on his side, recognized in the paintings of Diaz an element of mystery that balanced the positiveness of Couture’s methods. He was as strongly influenced, and quite as plainly directed, by this quality in Diaz as by the teachings of Couture. Proof of this is found in The Fortune Teller, where the arrangement of light and shade, the peculiar sunny tones, and the general aspect of the picture all suggest the former master. A little picture of two children is almost imitative in the strength of its resemblance to the figure pictures by Diaz, and a study of a female head has all the qualities of his color. Mr. Hunt’s admiration for Diaz was but a spark in comparison with the flame kindled in him by the pictures of Millet, then a comparatively unknown painter. His appreciation of Millet amounted almost to worship. From his first acquaintance with him we find his eyes so full of Millet’s pictures that he sees nature only through the image of their beauties. It is a common experience of an artist, after looking at pictures which impress him strongly, to find himself so affected by their qualities that he sees them repeated in every group in the streets. This impression at times reaches the strength of an optical delusion, but is generally ephemeral, Mr. Hunt seems to have been so thoroughly stirred up by the incomparable charm of Millet’s color and effects of light that, for years after, his own productions echoed the souvenirs of his chosen master. Various pictures in the exhibition show to what extent his association with Millet directed his own efforts. Sheep Shearing at Barbison is perhaps the nearest like a Millet of any work; but even this has strong resemblances, without being a copy. One of the most interesting things in the exhibition is the contrast between the two pictures of La Marguerite. The second one, painted in 1853, while he was with Millet, is on the lines of the first one, painted the year before with Couture. Less sculpturesque and less solid in aspect, the second has a compensating charm of sentiment and expression which is absent in the first picture from the very conditions of its execution. Couture insisted on the material, on the texture, on the tangibility, of the objects. Millet flooded the figure in a broad, mystifying light, removing it from the possibility of too close inspection, investing it with an intimacy, a retiring modesty, that befits the subject.
After following the artist through the different phases of his early development abroad, it is equally interesting to observe his struggles to express himself in his own language. He had been prattling — and a vigorous prattle it was, too — with the phrases of his French masters, and now he must use his own words. For a period he seemed to lose his first feeling for sculpturesque form, having failed to catch the grand note of Millet’s draughtsmanship, and occupied himself almost entirely with the manipulation of the color and the search after a sunny effect of light. For several years he painted with an almost feminine timidity, finishing the flesh to a high degree, but always presenting the broad effect of light and shade. The execution of the grand portrait of Chief Justice Shaw, painted for the Essex Bar Association in 1859, called out all his dormant energy, awoke afresh his sympathies with the sculptor’s art, and created a new impulse in him. This portrait has certainly more noble qualities than any other ever painted by Mr. Hunt, and stands alone in this country in the portraiture of this generation. The dignity of the pose, the strong character of the head, the decorative arrangement of the figure and its accessories, and above all the intense humanity of the portrait make it healthy and vigorous as a work of art, and of inestimable value as immortalizing a type of the age and race in its true aspect. If the artist had painted but this single portrait, he might have put aside his palette with justifiable satisfaction. In The Singers, and a few pictures similar in treatment and painted about the same date as the Chief Justice Shaw, there is scarcely a trace of the vigor that found expression in the portrait. Dating from this grand work, we find his attention turned more than ever before to the character of the sitter as the first point of interest. He began the study of art as a sculptor, and a few examples of his modeling in the exhibition show that his success would have been great in this branch of art. Within ten years after his European student life he comes back to his first impulses with renewed devotion. Each successive portrait that he paints has more and more of the sculpturesque quality. For a while he appears wholly preoccupied with this element in his work, and his color is indifferent, weak, and often disagreeable. Sometimes the flesh is full of green tones, and again full of brickred hues. But the portraits gain all the time in character. His ladies always remain ladies, and his gentlemen preserve their distinction even in the disguise of bad coloring, for the best lines of their features and figure are on the canvas. When the artist did not satisfy himself in seizing the characteristic points of his sitter, he generally gave up the work, no matter how charming it might have been in any other direction but the one he concentrated his energy upon. Essentially a painter of moods, and of very violent moods, he subordinated everything to the one idea that urged him to action. His work was therefore uneven and uncertain. A trifle would spoil it; an hour of satisfactory painting would secure its completion.
Judging from the present exhibition, the period of the war was marked by few noteworthy productions, with the exception of the Bugle Call and the Drummer Boy. These indicate pretty clearly his state of mind during the excitement of war. They are unquestionably the most earnest and dignified of the mass of pictures inspired by the rebellion. The noble sentiment of patriotism tempted his brush, not the details of the strife nor the minor motives, which, once so important, we are now ready to lose sight of in the grand aspect of this chapter in our history. These two pictures are for all time and for all countries. But the painter devoted himself with characteristic zeal to another service during the war, a line of work no doubt very distasteful to him, but valuable beyond price to his patrons. He painted a great many portraits of dead soldiers from the meagre material in the possession of the relatives. Painting from photographs is, at the best, the most ungrateful task an artist can have, and Mr. Hunt, with his intense love for nature, sacrificed his choicest inclinations in this occupation. His patience and consideration will not be forgotten by those he served in this way.
Among the scores of portraits in the collection, there are but few mediocre ones and many masterly examples. That of Mrs. Charles Francis Adams is dignified and lady-like and exceedingly refined, although sombre and even smoky in color. A study of a little girl’s head has the charm of sweet expression and delicate color, — a matchless portrait of childhood. With what sympathy with maternal tenderness is painted the portrait of a lady holding her babe! It is reverential in its feeling. Master Gardner, former head-master of the Boston Latin School, sitting by a table in an attitude so well known to his friends, fairly lives in the portrait, so true is every shade of character caught. The personality of a sitter has rarely been more strongly given in a portrait than in the head of Mr. Allan Wardner. This stands quite alone among the rest in the manner of its execution, for it is unlike any except the most sketchy heads, and was apparently done with ease and confidence. Many other good character heads in the collection have especially strong points in them, but none have the peculiar technique of this one. It recalls Lenbach’s best work, though it is less labored and much more freely touched. His own portrait is perhaps less satisfactory than most of the others. It has few of the strong accents of his face, and, although a strong resemblance, does not do justice to the original in point of picturesqueness.
It will be seen that his color grows more agreeable as he continues to paint portraits. The rise of a passionate mood for color may be traced with some accuracy. Certainly the beginning of this fever is fairly indicated by the study of a boy’s head in the Rembrandt effect of light. Very rich and luminous in color, full of throbbing blood-vessels, the flesh almost quivers with life. As a piece of color it is the gem of the exhibition. Several large studies and many minor sketches have the same intense appreciation of the beauty of rich flesh tones. They were all painted in the fever heat of excitement, when the palette was forgotten, and only the sitter and the rapidly-growing study were in the focus of the artist’s mind and eye. An interesting comparison may be made between one or two of the small heads painted between 1850 and 1860 and the studies he made during the past three or four years. Several of the early ones are almost Gothic in their simplicity. The recent studies have no trace of this feeling, but show instead a strong sympathy with the activity and vigor of life.
The commission to execute the great decorations in the Capitol at Albany came just at the period when the artist was in his best mood for this kind of work. For two or three years previous he had been painting in a decided decorative way. The two immense panels gave him an opportunity to exercise his taste for decoration, and also afforded the space necessary to the execution of imaginative compositions, one of which, at least, had been long in his mind. The cartoons in the exhibition well illustrate how the idea of these compositions grew into being. As early as 1850 he painted a head of Sleep for The Flight of Night. The striking group of horses was a favorite picture for many years, and he executed it a score of times in various materials. The little series of pastel drawings, made to try the general effect of composition of line and color, form a progressive scale of development of the original conception, and disclose by what steps he reached the satisfactory arrangement. Notwithstanding the multitude of the studies for the mural paintings, no adequate idea can be formed from them of the superb decorations at Albany. It is sufficient to say that they are an appropriate monument to the genius of the artist.
An impulsive love for nature in all her forms early led Mr. Hunt to study landscape. Many of his landscapes are peculiarly poetical; all of them are quite unconventional in treatment, and show qualities rare in the work of professed landscape painters. Several of the Florida scenes, for example, are almost as tender in color as Corot’s pictures. When the wonderful study of Niagara strikes the eye, it carries a sure conviction of its truthfulness. In strength of color and luminous effect it is far ahead of any other landscape in the exhibition. The sublime scene has never had a finer interpretation. Below this roaring mass of waters hangs a little summer landscape with two lambs lying on the hillside. The energy and almost brutal strength developed in the execution of the Niagara are tempered in the small landscape into a feminine gentleness of touch and delicacy of feeling.
The collection of drawings is almost as interesting as the paintings. Mr. Hunt made constant use of charcoal as a rapid means of making notes. Its flexibility and the comparative ease with which it is employed made it more suitable to his methods of working than any other material. He was accustomed to use it in his notes of effect, of poses, and even in his preliminary studies of portraits. The drawings have therefore all the charm of first impressions, and are the best interpretations of the artist’s most intimate idea. Elaboration in color often destroyed a great deal of the vigor of the charcoal sketch. Sometimes a few scratches with the blunt end of a charcoal stick would serve the artist as a note of a characteristic point in some picturesque object or fleeting effect. These short-hand notes were made with wonderful accuracy. A few little sketches of donkeys show how valuable are spots of dark on white, if they are in their right places. This is exactly what Mr. Hunt aimed at in his painting, — putting the right spot in the right place at once. And this, too, is the end and object of all right methods.
It is evident that in a review of an exhibition so full of important works, scant justice can be done to most of the noteworthy pictures. A large proportion of them have been before the public, and are familiar through prints and photographs. It is safe to say that the extent and variety of Mr. Hunt’s powers was never before comprehended, even by those who knew him best. The exhibition is a remarkable one from many points of view. Full of human interest, alive with personality, of astonishing range and comprehensiveness, it excites the imagination, stimulates the artistic sense, and makes it seem glorious to have lived and to have painted.