Records of W. M. Hunt
SOME five years ago, when Mr. Hunt first came to see us, being shown into the study where several landscapes are hung, he went directly up to a Corot, and putting his face quite close to the canvas looked it over earnestly for a moment or two, and then, seating himself near it, said abruptly, “What is it makes this painting so charming ? Why is it so poetic ? ”
No one else answering, I ventured to say it was difficult to find a reason ; perhaps it was because the picture was so Corot-ish. This was no answer at all, and disregarding it, accordingly, he went on to say that it was “ because it is not what people call a finished painting. There is room for imagination in it. It is poetic. Finish up, as they call it, make everything out clear and distinct, and anybody sees all there is in about a minute. A minute is enough for a picture of that sort, and you never want to look at it again. They call Corot’s pictures sketchy, and think that he does them quickly and easily. I tell you he works years on them, and works hard.”
He then went over to a little Corot hanging on the opposite wall, to which he had not apparently paid any attention, and putting his thumb on the middle distance, and moving it over the thicket of trees in an artistic way, as though he were following the directions of Corot’s brush, said, “ See how beautiful that is, — how vague and indistinct! It’s a great deal harder to do that than it would have been to make all those trees out clearly. Corot knows what he ’s about. He did not begin painting in the way he paints now. He learned from experience that this is the way to paint. He knows the worth of mystery and of hiding the appearance of hard work.”
After Corot’s death, in speaking of the great labor and seriousness in his pictures, Hunt said, “ I went to see Corot when I was last in Paris. He is as simple and charming as his pictures, and seemed to enjoy showing his sketches and telling what he proposed to do. Mind you, he did n’t speak of what he had done, but of what he proposed to do. He showed me three sketches in which the subjects were merely laid, which he said he purposed to get ready for the Exposition of three years later. Just think of it ! He was going to keep these sketches by him and work over them for three years before exhibiting them. 4 Yes,’ said the old man, 4 if the good God spares my life for three years longer, I hope to show some pictures worthy of me and worthy of our landscape painting.’ Think of it ! After painting for fifty years, he wanted three years more just to do certain things that he had been trying for so long, and had never been able to do. And yet some people think his work hasty and incomplete ! ” I remarked that an artist had said to me that there were multitudes of false Corots in this country, and I had replied that, while there were many imitations, I did not believe that copies were very common, and they were easy to detect, as Corot was one of the difficult masters to copy. 44 Poh! ” said the artist, “if you will lend me your best Corot I will make a copy of it in a couple of days that you cannot tell from the original. He is the easiest of all the French school to copy.” “ Tell him,” said Mr. Hunt, 44 that if he kept this Corot by him ten years he could n’t copy it. I ’m not sure that anybody could make a fine copy of Corot.”
On another occasion, sitting opposite a Corot at a distance, he said, 44 As I see that picture now the tip of the tree there seems too strongly accented; ” then crossing the room to the picture, he continued, “ Yes, the end of this branch as it melts into the sky is rather strongly accented. It attracts the eye too much,” and, turning round quickly, he added earnestly and with a solemnity not unusual with him, “If Corot were here now, I think he would agree with me.”
Mr. Hunt was very sparing of adverse criticism, and with the great masters like Millet, Corot, Delacroix, and others he was most reverential, whatever the nature of his criticism. A notable exception to this that I remember was in the case of Charles Jacques. This distinguished painter he disliked, and was disposed to do scant justice to his works. Being asked how he liked a certain Jacques picture, he replied, “ It ’s better than most of his pictures, — not so stuffy.” This was the highest praise he felt like giving it. Of another one of Jacques’ large and pretentious canvases he said, “I don’t like it. He thinks these daubs of color on the tree trunks make him a colorist like Diaz.” The enmity between Millet and Jacques had, naturally, some influence in intensifying Mr. Hunt’s dislike of the latter painter’s work.
I asked him, one evening, if he nearly always made drawings in charcoal of his landscapes as well as his portraits before painting. He said that he did ; that it was very easily and quickly done, and gave one a correct idea of how the picture would look in oil, especially as regards composition and values. “It is a great saving of time. One may get from a few minutes’ work with a bit of charcoal more practical hints than he can get sometimes by hours of painting, and he may possibly discover also that he is attempting something that he can’t do at all.” I remarked that I had never tried charcoal drawing, and that I proposed to attempt it during my summer vacation. “ That ’s right,” he said. “ I would do it. You ’ll find it great fun ; easy, quick, and not fatiguing. It will teach you to paint, too. You see you can get all the gradations of tone from the blackest black up to the pure white paper.”
In the autumn following I showed him a dozen or more charcoal drawings from nature. He looked them over rapidly, pausing only when he saw something to praise, passing over grave faults without notice. Presently he said, “ I must do a drawing or two for you some evening, just to let you see the way I do them.” Nothing more was said on the subject at the time. After he left the house the probabilities of his remembering his promise were eagerly discussed, and we concluded that the chance of it was exceedingly small; and, although very desirous of seeing him do some of his famous charcoals, we resolved that no hint should ever be given him of the promise.
On the second or third subsequent visit, however, to our great joy, Mr. Hunt cried out, as he entered the room, “ Where are your charcoals ? I feel just like doing some. Ah,” he exclaimed, as we opened the little box of crayons for him. “ these are the petits buissons ; you want the gros buissons. Keep these ; they ’ll do for some things, but they are too delicate ; they break too easily. I ’ll send you a box of the gros buissons.” He then seated himself, and taking the block of paper on his knees began by dashing on the paper at one side near its margin, in the boldest hap-hazard style, a large black spot. He bore on so hard that the delicate stem of charcoal snapped almost at the start. This did not annoy him in the least, and he went on without interruption, using the fragments. One could scarcely imagine that this intensely black dot would ever make a reputable part of a picture, and he presently said, “ This looks black to you, but I can’t make it as black as I want to, the charcoals are so delicate. I often get a black a good deal blacker than this with the gros buissons.” He went on with the drawing, and in about fifteen minutes it was completed. There were the dark willows at the edge of the water that spread across and made the foreground, the shore-line and the bridge in the middle distance, the hills far away, the exquisitely tender clouds just over them, and higher in the sky the nearer cloud forms, the whole reflected in the water with a success so disproportioned to the apparent effort made that it seemed like magic. In fact, the whole drawing was so playfully free and effortless as to suggest a lucky accident ; it drew itself. The effect of this charcoal, though different in composition, reminds one of Rembrandt’s etching of The Three Trees.
Without pausing, Mr. Hunt went on, saying that now he would sketch from memory a sea-side view, that he had left the evening before. This time he drew carefully and with effort, evidently desirous of getting a correct portrait of the spot. In composition the drawing was somewhat like the other, but in place of the clump of willows at the left a large rock jutted out into the water ; beyond this the distant coast-line was made up of rocks and cedar-trees. Above there was a clear sky, with irregular cloudlines ; and still above these were heavier, unbroken clouds. In the still water of the foreground the large rock and the sky were reflected ; near the shore the breeze ruffled the mirror’s surface, so that no reflections were visible there ; but the smooth water extended in toward the coast just far enough to catch and reflect the tops of the rocks and trees beyond, so that a long, slender line of reflections nearly parallel with the coast reached across the middle distance. This drawing, though not academically prim, is rather precise than free. The sky and its reflection in the water are, however, more loose, and in Mr. Hunt’s usual fascinating manner. The drawing is of the same size as the other, about eight by ten inches, yet it required nearly three times as long to do.
After a few moments’ rest and talk about the beauty of the coast scene as he saw it, he began to draw again with an immense furor and rapidity, clearly due to a welcome reaction from the cramped exactness required by the last subject. In less than three minutes the picture was done. Near the centre of the foreground was a clump of half a dozen poplars ; beyond, a broad river, and then a perspective of hills melting away into a horizon of clouds ; above, a clear sky. As a finishing touch, the figures of a woman and a cow were put in at the left of the poplars in five or six seconds. He next drew, with almost equal rapidity, a very poetic landscape, of about half the size of the others. The water of the immediate foreground reflected imperfectly the two or three trees at the right, and a line of extremely delicate ones extending to the centre, and farther towards the left the finely modeled figures of a woman and child, and beyond a man in a boat pushing off from the shore. This is one of his poetic little bits, in his daintiest and tenderest manner.
In answer to the inquiry as to how his style of doing charcoals differed from that of the French school of Lalanne and Allongé, he said that they, for instance, first covered the paper with charcoal evenly, and then removed a portion, forming the lights of the clouds ; while he, on the contrary, supposed the white paper to represent the clear sky, his clouds being formed by the dark of the charcoal touches. In other parts of the picture the French school depends for the lights upon the removal, more or less completely, of the darks. Hence their drawings are far less brilliant in tone than when done with the charcoal alone, and with as little rubbing, softening, or erasing as possible.
He then did a small picture in the manner mentioned, with light, rolling clouds on a dark background of sky, a darker middle distance, and a nearly white foreground, upon which he put, with the fewest possible strokes, a man with a pair of oxen, plowing.
Finally, he called for a crumb of bread and as he began removing with it, carefully. the few lines that had straggled outside the field of his drawing, he said, “ I’m not a very neat man about my work, but I do like to clean up the edges of my pictures.” Then he quietly put his initials to the first, second, and fourth pictures, and the delightful lesson was over.
The next morning, to our surprise, a box of gross buissons was sent us. It was some days later before I realized his object in making a portion of his first picture so very black. It was partly for the purpose of showing me the whole gamut of tint from the blackest black to the whitest white, so that many values could be made available in one drawing, and partly to show that there need be no fear in the use of charcoal that one should get too dark a tone, or start on too dark a key. Instead of telling me that my drawings were too timid and nearly colorless, he chose to do some that were as far removed as possible from either fault, and trust them to do the rest of the teaching.
Years afterwards I heard a lady at his studio ask him how long it took him to draw a certain rather elaborate charcoal picture. “Well,” answered the artist, “ I think it took me an hour or two; that is, I Was about that time putting it on the paper there ; but I suppose I ought to say that it took me forty years, as I ’ve been drawing about that length of time.”
January, 1875. There was in his studio at this time a striking picture of a small boy fencing, that recalled at once the picture of The Actor, by Velasquez, at Madrid. On a remark to this effect the artist said, “ Yes, yes; I don’t know that I was thinking of Velasquez when it was painted, but possibly if Velasquez had never painted his picture this might never have been done.” He seemed to take almost as much interest in a large portfolio of charcoal drawings as in his more important works, and was constantly taking up the drawings that he liked best, and putting them in advantageous positions.
We were invited several times to his studio during this month, never presuming to visit him without special invitation, at this time or in later years. On these occasions he seemed very merry and light hearted, and would take up his banjo or guitar and play a little, sing a French song, joke a great deal, and tell stories.
February 12th. Mr. Hunt came in and looked at a small picture by Millet, of a woman bathing. It is one of his early pictures. He took it up and said, “ I remember that picture. I saw it in one of the collections in Paris, many years ago. It’s fine.” To the remark that it was as good as the old masters, he replied, “ It’s as good as the best of the old masters, — as good as Correggio.” This was about four o’clock in the afternoon. We then went out to one of Perabo’s piano recitals at Wesleyan Hall. On the way there Mr. Hunt said, “ Don’t let us sit where we can’t get out easily. Sometimes, you know, a fellow wants to get away pretty early, not because the music is n’t good, but because one gets enough. If one piece fills you full, what ’s the use of spoiling your digestion by trying to take in more ? When I get full I want to be able to leave quietly.” So we got a seat far back, but he remained through the entire programme.
“ It seems strange to sit here,” he said, “and take in all this with my ears alone. I’m in the habit of taking in things with my eyes. It makes one want to shut his eyes to hear good music, so that he can concentrate his perceptions in his ears. I should think persons hearing music constantly might become blind.” Mr. Hunt was very musical: he had in his room, at one time, a piano, two violins, a banjo, and a guitar. Having an excellent ear for music he appreciated the best thoroughly ; but as in painting, though conscious of any defect, he was always eager to pardon minor faults, when an artist had “something to say and said it.” I remember once hearing him speak very warmly of a public singer, praising almost without stint her noble voice, her sincerity and breadth of style; adding at the end, “ She ’s a great singer, even if she does get a little off the key sometimes.”
On the way home from the concert he was very gay over what he heard a man say by way of criticism, namely, that “ Perabo was quite himself to-day.” Mr. Hunt kept repeating the phrase enjoyingly, and asked, “ What did he mean by that, — something good or bad ? Do you suppose he knows one tune from another ? ” “ No.” “ Then what does he go to concerts for ? ” “ Because he has a ticket given him.” “And makes it out to be a very remarkable occasion because the player was ‘ quite himself.’ I wish he would criticise pictures.”
He drank tea with us, and remained until quite late in the evening. The conversation turned upon the drudgery of portrait painting and the peculiarities of sitters. He was then painting Mr. -, an elderly man. “ He shakes hands every morning when he comes. Do you want to know how he does it ? ” He then took my hand, and holding it quite still squeezed it very hard. “ What does that mean ? ” I asked. “It means that he is n’t dead, — that ’s all. He’s old and retired from business, and he’s afraid people will think he ’s dead ; so when he gets hold of a hand he just lets the owner of it know that he ’s very much alive still.” Of General Dix he observed that he was a perfect gentleman in manners, — one of the old school ; always deferential, continually mindful of the painter’s comfort, never letting engagements interfere with sittings, punctual to come, and ready to remain.
Of another distinguished statesman he said, “ He is a man who impresses you as very strong intellectually, a gentleman polished and refined ; but he’s a little pompous, and has the air of being afraid you won’t feel his greatness unless he reminds you of it by his manner. He always fixed the time of his sittings himself. This annoyed me, but as I was his guest I let things go on in this way for a while ; afterwards I had something to say about my own time for working, and we finally got on very well together.”
Mr. Hunt was very intolerant of pretension, — as might be supposed from his character and writings ; never assuming himself, never pretentious, never dictatorial, he was extremely sensitive to these traits in others. He could neither overlook nor pardon them for a moment in people of position. Many, knowing him as a “hail fellow well met,” full of jokes and stories, are not aware that under this democratic exterior lay the dormant but ever-present consciousness of superiority. He felt that he was deservedly the peer of any American, of whatever position or reputation. He believed that he had done things that would live, and he did not choose to permit anybody to treat him as an inferior. Indeed, he would not permit himself to be treated with much familiarity by any one, how ever distinguished, unless he were an intimate friend. He would pull a letter out of his pocket and say, “ This is all very well, but I don’t quite like the familiar tone.”
One evening, just after an exhibition of pictures at his studio, he came in and said Mr.-(mentioning the name of a man of wealth and prominence) came into the studio and swaggered about with his hat on. “ I tell you, I came within an ace of just going up and smashing his hat down on to his chin ; but if I had I should n’t have stopped at that; I should have kicked him out of the room, too. It would n’t have been more than he deserved. What business had he, a man I never spoke to more than twice in my life, to swell round in my studio with his hat on ! You may wear your hat there as much as you please, and so may any of my friends. You know I often insist on their remaining covered. T care nothing about it if a man is a gentleman. But old-is not a gentleman, and if he ever does that thing again I ’ll send my boy to him and tell him to take off his hat.”
Of Mr.-, once a sitter, he said, “ I wanted to paint him very much, not merely because he is famous, but because he has a striking face, and I thought I could do it justice. So I took great interest in the portrait, and gave myself the trouble of preparing several canvases and making a number of preliminary sketches. When he came to me, although very polite, he had on his air of condescension, and intimated that he was doing a thing of no account just to please his friends. After sitting for about an hour, he took out his watch, and said he had an engagement. I did n’t set any time for the next sitting, and when, some weeks after, his friends came in to see when he should come again, I told them I would let them know when I was ready. I will let ’em know when I ’m ready, but it will be when we are both a good deal older than we are now. If he does n’t want his portrait painted, and does n’t want it painted by me, I don’t propose to paint it. I did want to paint it, and looked forward to doing it with the greatest interest.”
Of a portrait of R , a prominent man, I said to him, “ It is good, a faultless likeness and fine in color, but I don’t think it. one of your best. You have n’t made any more of him than he is. Just look at the portrait of X. ! It is perfect as a likeness, and yet he has the air of a Roman emperor.” “Well,” said Mr. Hunt, “ a fellow could make a Roman emperor of X., because he is an emperor in his way, but R. is just as big as he looks, and no bigger. I could get nothing big out of him. He impressed me as a big talker, and that ’s all.”
The following anecdote was given me by an artist friend of Mr. Hunt, and is. I think, substantially correct. He had painted for one of his patrons a figure in a blue dress, and later, while engaged in painting another portrait in a dress of the same color, he was asked by the owner of the former picture not to duplicate the blue dress. The only reply the artist made was to ask if he had a patent on this particular color, and he went on painting the dress as he had begun.
On another occasion the following document was sent for his signature: “ Received of Mr.-fifty dollars for finishing up a portrait.” Mr. Hunt refused his signature, but instead wrote as follows : “ Received of Mr.-fifty dollars for working a week on a picture after it was finished. W. M. HUNT.”
May 13, 1875. Mr. Hunt invited a few friends to his studio to meet William Warren and Joseph Jefferson. The affair was very enjoyable, and passed off to his entire satisfaction. In speaking of it later he said, “ I hardly dared to invite Warren and Jefferson ; I thought they might refuse, or say they were engaged, if they did n’t want to come. But they said they would come in for a little while. As they stayed three hours or more, I think they must have had a pretty good time.” One of the other guests present was a man of great dignity and social position, and I remember that Mr. Hunt said to him, “ I was rather afraid to ask you here, you ’ve got to be such a great man; I thought probably you ’d feel too big to come, but I’m glad ” — And here Mr. Hunt rushed up and threw his arms round him and gave him a hearty hug. I was astonished at his temerity, but no harm came of it.
“ How nice Mr. Warren looked, did n’t he ? ” said Mr. Hunt. “ I ’ve always said that he ’s the only man I ever saw that makes me want to wear a wig.”
June 9th. He came to us early, and stayed very late. The portrait called The Old Professor, of Duveneck, interested him exceedingly. He took it in his lap and fondled it for a half hour or more, even while talking of other matters. A few evenings later he begged us to lend it to him for a few days ; he wished to see how it looked in his studio; and so he carried it off under his arm, frame and all, refusing to have it sent round to him in the morning. He also showed us a very friendly letter from Duveneck, in response to an invitation from him to remain and paint in Boston. So far from feeling jealous of Duveneck’s talent, as had been alleged, he would gladly have had him live in Boston, and would have done all he could to help him to get orders. Later in the year, when Duveneck was in Boston, Mr. Hunt expressed great regret at not meeting him. This evening he was a little disposed to scold the picture dealers, and expose some of their expedients to prevent the public from meeting the artists face to face.
He told the story of a little child who said, one day, when the servants were noisy, that “ she felt as if the wolves were smoothing their voices on her back.” Of an old woman, he said that she was as slow “ as two big rocks in a pretty high wind.”
During August of this year Mr. Hunt was very busy in the construction of what he called his van, — a large covered sketching wagon, commodious enough to live in while on a sketching tour; built, as he said with great glee, “ by a man who builds gypsy wagons.” It had all kinds of drawers in it for pots, kettles, and painting utensils, and was to be drawn about to eligible sketching grounds by a span of horses; the man who sold him the harnesses sold him, at the same time, a powder to cure galled spots in horses, that was also a good tooth powder. The same man had, further, a contrivance for pulling up runaway horses that lifted them right off their feet, and a pail for feeding, with a crane under it !
The painter laughed heartily over the story he had just heard of two ladies, who, stopping in a country drive to water their horse at a brook, unbuckled the crupper, so that the horse should reach the water.
He said that the van was so easy that driving in it was like being up in a balloon, and gave the pleasantest possible proof of his assertion, one afternoon later, by driving us twenty-five miles in it. The drive was delightful, as any drive with Mr. Hunt was sure to be, but it left a consciousness for a day or two that an experimental drive of twenty-five miles, even in a van, is rather long. _
It is doubtful if he found the new carriage as pleasurable and serviceable as he anticipated. Perhaps this would have been impossible, but as it was not spoken of much after a few weeks, we inferred that it was found to be a more cumbersome vehicle than he liked.
Mr. Hunt was very fond of horses, often driving a pair, and keeping four or five, besides a saddle-horse or two. He liked fine roadsters rather than fast trotters, and never raced, though generally driving fast and pretty far. Making pets of his horses, and frequently descanting on their individuality, he was, nevertheless, like other horse fanciers, disposed to buy and sell often. If a horse pleased him, the desire of possession was nearly irresistible, and the purchase of one necessitated the disposal of others.
Having, at one time, some trouble with horse-shoers, we inquired of him whom he employed for his horses. “ Oh,” he exclaimed, “ don’t ask ! I don’t know. I don’t want to hate anybody in particular. If I knew, I should hate a man ; now I only hate a race.”
Henry C. Angell.