Records of W. M. Hunt


MR. HUNT was one of the most patient men when patience was really necessary ; yet the exercise of this virtue was not pleasant to him. It wore upon his nervous strength and exhausted him. His patience was admirable, but it was costly, and when all outward manifestations bespoke submission and harmony he was often most restive. The delays incident to the acceptance of the contract for the Albany work, and the subsequent waiting for the room to be got into condition for him to begin painting, were severely felt. Some extracts from letters dated at his studio and addressed to his assistant, while the latter was at Niagara, will show this : —

“ I am glad that everything goes on so well at the Falls ; for, among other reasons, it enables me to be patient with my work here, and also to bear with patience the delays necessary where many are interested. Both Mr. Eidlitz and Mr. Dorsheimer have written me that they were unable to be here to meet me to-day, as we had agreed. Eidlitz is to come the last of the week, and Mr. D. on Sunday. In the mean time I have enough to busy myself about. I feel that even in the event of my not undertaking the work it will not have been entirely lost time, as I am thinking over a good many things which I would have slept over, had not an occasion called them up. I regret much not being able to be at the Falls to complete the work there before hot weather. But I don’t think it would be well to growl much at my luck. I am pleased that Tom is doing well. Remember me to him, and ask him to write and tell me how the brown mare’s legs and feet are. Also, he must be sure not to let the horses go too long without having their feet looked to and shoes placed.”

In another note at this time he says, “ I am quite as anxious to be in N. F. as you are to have me, and the time lost in questioning and doubt is very perplexing ; but I suppose we must look at it as a good thing. I have been trying some experiments in throwing up large figures in my room from small drawings, and they work pretty well. will write soon and often, and like to hear from you.”

This letter was sent off without either date or signature. He rarely dated his letters, but usually affixed his signature.

Mr. Hunt was, perhaps, more than most artists impatient of the ordinary incompetent criticism, and being by reason of his temperament an ardent hater for cause naturally disliked a class of talking or writing people who, he felt, misunderstood and misrepresented him. His enmity was notably excited by the kind of simplicity that marched up to a picture painted to be seen at a distance of ten feet, and, putting its nose against the canvas, prated of brush marks and roughness and the lack of finish. I remember hearing Mr. Hunt and Mr. Joseph Jefferson compare opinions upon the effect of looking at pictures from wrong distances. Mr. Jefferson remarked that it was necessary to modify one’s representations to suit the distance of the actor from the audience; that good acting in a small auditorium might not be effective in a larger room.

Mr. Hunt was a believer in solid masculine work. He had been a painter long enough to appreciate, in his own productions, the worth of time in mellowing the tone and smoothing the surface of paintings in oil. No complaint was ever heard of a want of finish or smoothness in the painting called The Prodigal Son, recently on exhibition at the Art Museum. It appears, indeed, more “ finished ” or smooth than many a Holbein or a Ribera; yet, two years after it was painted, in 1853, its surface was so coarse and rough that the texture of the sheep-skin on the back of the smaller figure could not be distinguished from the flesh painting except by its color. Mr. Hunt recognized a certain crudeness and roughness as valuable qualities in fresh work, and did not choose to he forced into a way of painting that lie did not approve.

Mr. Hunt disliked also a set of admirers who were pleased to praise his early work at the expense of his present, and who spoke of his latest pictures as crude and hurried in execution. I could see, or thought I could see, that, averaging his work, he was painting, on the whole, better and better every year. I once remarked to him that I thought he had never painted so well as now, and asked him to tell me frankly his own opinion about it. He said, “ I think I am painting now better than at any period of my life. I should certainly be very much discouraged if I thought that, with all my trying, I had made no progress for twenty years. Of this I am sure : the things that I did many years ago with difficulty look very easy to me at the present time.”

Since Mr. Hunt’s death, but never before within my knowledge, he has been spoken of as lacking in originality, and his earlier paintings, done under the supervision of Couture or Millet, or soon after leaving their ateliers, are instanced in supporting this view. But to dispose of this accusation we have only to look at the things done after he had emancipated himself from his pupillary surroundings. I think one finds in his later work a rather aggressive and striking originality both in conception and style. Certainly one would never speak of any of the old masters as lacking in originality because their early works resembled those of their teachers. Such fidelity to teaching is creditable to the pupil. The only thing that gives very early work any value whatever is its close resemblance to that of some artist of reputation.

In the spring of 1877, Mr. Hunt was especially disturbed by an article published in one of the newspapers of New York. It purported to be a notice of the spring exhibition of the Academy of that city, but a chief object of the communication was, apparently, to give vent to some splenetic views concerning Mr. Hunt and his pupils and friends in Boston. As Mr. Hunt had no pictures on exhibition in the New York Academy at this time, one might have supposed it difficult to introduce him and his local surroundings into such an article ; but the writer was equal to the occasion. Mr. Duveneck had some pictures there, and these paintings, the writer went on to say, were “not needed here so much as in Boston; ” but they were particularly needed in the latter place “to break up the stagnation that follows monopoly in the art world no less inexorably than it does in the market. We are fortunately free, now, from the one-man power that until a little while ago in Boston had ground down all the young women artists’, and many of the young men artists’, bones to a pale unanimity, and which, if it had not been checked in time, would have swamped art in our sister city in monotony and mannerism. Mr. Duveneck’s appearance in Boston fluttered the dove-cotes there to some purpose, and nothing that we know of in the recent history of our art world seems to me as interesting as the cordial enthusiasm his pictures excited among the younger members of the Art Club, — an enthusiasm which took the practical shape of an invitation to the artist to come and settle in Boston, where, it was hoped, he might give efficient help in the opposition that was making itself felt to certain arrogant and dogmatic claims beginning to be unbearable. Mr. Duveneck did not accept the invitation, but his pictures worked powerfully in the desired direction, and greatly strengthened the hands of the rising school. In Boston the presence of a strong man was needed to temper, not to destroy, the rule of one artist, who, immensely more through social and personal influences, — among them a streaming eloquence of dogmatic assertion, headstrong opinions, and blustering scorn of all opposition, — immensely more through such influences than through his art, had imposed his theories and his practice on a crowd of blind adorers. Of course some good has come of this autocratic rule. It has not enlarged people; that can only be done by teaching them to think for themselves. It has not made them love art; that can only be done by showing them art in its various manifestations ; and Boston people have been crammed, in these later years, with the belief that there is no art but French art, and that Couture and Mr. Wm. Hunt are its prophets. . . . No man in Boston, with any strength of his own, could, however, long endure this state of things. Those who could escape fled to Europe or New York; those who could not escape made the best of it; and we can imagine their delight when, at a certain exhibition of the Art Club, they saw their deliverance dawn in Mr. Duveneck’s pictures.”

This article Mr. Hunt regarded as a malicious as well as an ignorant representation of his position in Boston, and felt that, in justice to his pupils and friends, and to the status of art here, some correcting statement should be made. He therefore wrote and sent the following reply, which was refused publication. It was addressed to the writer of the criticism. “ I am not surprised,” writes Mr. Hunt, “ at your disgust at the character which you describe; but when one considers that it is your own manufacture, the disgust turns naturally towards the machine which incubates such a production. You present the picture of a being so weak and stupid that he cannot even teach people to ‘ think for themselves,’ and one who has not taught any one to love art; ' for that can only be done by showing them art in its various manifestations.’ This weak creature at the same time holds ‘ autocratic rule ’ over a city of three hundred thousand inhabitants for years, grinds everybody to pieces, and those who can escape fly to Europe, — or to New York ! To cap the climax, a deliverer arrives, who, by the bye, had been invited by me to share my studio; and in another moment, if it had not been checked in time, this ‘ one-man power ’ would have ‘ swamped art in our sister city in monotony and mannerism.’

“ Now, your motive in all this is to create animosity between me and other artists ; but you will be unsuccessful. The sister city, over which I am described as holding such autocratic rule, has always been the first to accept most cordially fresh examples of art. Boston was the first to recognize Millet, Corot, Daubigny, and of our own non-resident artists, Inness, Lafarge, Vedder, Duveneck, and others.

“ You tell us that Boston people have been crammed with French art, and that Couture and William Hunt are its prophets. Now it may surprise the reader to learn that you have written the history of my teachings and creed without even asking me an opinion, or being present at any lesson of my class; furthermore, to learn that I have never undertaken to teach M. Couture’s method, or any other method, and have endeavored, as all my scholars will say, to develop in each one his individual manner. I would as soon think of teaching a method of writing poetry.

“ The words ‘French art,’ which you put in my mouth, I do not remember ever to have used in my class; for they convey no meaning to the art student further than being suggestive of a class of skillfully painted pictures imported into New York, and sold to amateurs and dealers all over the country. The term is used here generally by what are called ‘ dealers’ assistants,’ who drum up purchasers, rope in friends, and pocket commissions.

“ Among modern painters I admire Hogarth, Géricault, Constable, Turner, Delacroix, Ingres, Flandrin, Corot, Millet, and others. I have pointed these artists out to my scholars as admirable ; and I shall not forget that Géricault, one of the greatest of modern French painters (mind you, not a stickler for French art), went over to England, and wrote to Delacroix to come over, saying that the English had at that time the best painters.

“ And when we see the admiration of the French for Bonnington, of Troyon for Constable, artists of each nation studying and admiring the works of the other ; and in visiting the studios of some of the best men in England to-day find on their walls sketches by Daubigny, Diaz, Corot, and Millet, it shows that those who have succeeded in art have always loved and respected one another’s work.

“ Please to remark that these are not the names whose monograms decorate the corners of pictures generally peddled about this country, or talked of as belonging to ‘ French art,’ or any other art. They are the names of individuals, and as different from one another as are Shakespeare, Goethe, Molière, and Browning; and, moreover, they are names that would never have survived if contemporaneous art criticism could have killed them.

“ The idea that fine art was ever confined to a school, or a people, is too idiotic to speak of. To accuse me of upholding such a sentiment is as silly in you as it would be for me to publish that you believe that art criticism can only be written with a quill of the great bald-headed American eagle.”

Since Mr. Hunt’s death the same critic again writes: “ Mr. Hunt was essentially the apostle of a school, and cried aloud in the desert of our American art culture the name of a master, lie worshiped the name of the late Thomas Couture, and he taught hundreds of his countrymen to worship it.” It would be interesting to learn how this writer obtained his singular knowledge of Mr. Hunt’s opinions and teachings. I never heard Mr. Hunt mention the name of Couture but once, and on that occasion he humorously alluded to the circumstance of some young American artists being in Couture’s studio, for the purpose of learning his method. “ Having got the proper method,” said Mr. Hunt, “ they can come right home and go to painting.”

As an example of Mr. Hunt’s manner of teaching by words, the following outlines of a lecture are interesting. It is elementary, but not too elementary to be of interest.

“ To make a copy of an object, and to imitate, if you will, as closely as possible, is an elementary process in learning to paint or draw. Therefore, make the most earnest endeavor, as you do when you first try to copy the letters and words in learning to write. But in order to say anything in art, to express as well as may be the impression or emotion which you have felt when you have seen something that has impressed you, or when your imagination has made a combination, and you desire to express this picture to another, —in order to do this, you will find not only that it is not necessary to say all that you can discover in the objects necessary to give the impression, but it will tax your ingenuity and patience to the utmost to keep the different objects needed to make your statement or picture each in its relative position to the other, and to the point you desire to make in your argument or representation.

“ The manner of using all objects will necessarily differ in every new subject or statement, and you will find that to paint a plate, or a flower, or a drapery, is a very easy matter in comparison with making these objects sing the desired note in the harmony of a composition.

“ To have something worth saying is a good deal; to be able to say it is not given to every one. To be eloquent is rare; to have the power to move and convince all hearers requires something more than courage, conviction, and independence. The possibility of this power is inborn, and is developed only through intense love, earnestness, desire unlimited, and the sacrifice of everything to one purpose.

“ You cannot be too plain or too direct. You must believe and you must affirm, and let your qualifications and your doubts follow in the baggage train to look after the wounded; and when in your descriptions you speak of a leaden sky or a golden river, neither be surprised nor discouraged when the scientific realist, the expert, or the critic gravely informs you that even by the test of specific gravity your statement can be proved erroneous. Remember that weights and measures are as much his business as perception and feeling are yours.

“ When a spectator, after looking at your work, remarks that he never saw this or that in nature, remember that this may be true ; and, moreover, that if he had seen it, it might have said nothing to him. Listen rather to those who have expressed to you clearly something which they have seen, and which enables you to see something which you never before thought worth noticing. You may be sure of getting more satisfaction in showing what you have observed to a man like Sir Isaac Newton, who saw the apple fall, than you would from all the apple gatherers from the time of Adam down to the present.

“ Why should we feel hurt by the complaints or criticisms of those whose opinions on art, were they for sale, we would not give a cent for ? On general rules, should not their praise be discouraging ? Let us suppose, now, that we have become capable of drawing and painting various familiar objects, — of rendering the idea of space in the sky, and the distance extending between objects as they recede from one another ; that we have learned to give the idea of substance and weight to the objects which we have endeavored to copy, — let us suppose that we have arrived thus far, and can give the general characteristic appearance of these forms and distances. Now it remains to be seen how we are to use this power in the formation of pictures, for it is, thus far, but the power of writing and spelling and learning the definition of the words of a language, — a part, in fact, of the grammar and the dictionary ; we have still to say something which will interest mankind, and to do this we must dare to leave the province of literal imitation to the parrot and the monkey. We are now to express, with the little we have learned, the ideas and emotions in which the mind and perceptions and heart of the artist abound.”

A young man learning to paint asked Mr. Hunt if he did not think it time that he exhibited something. “ Oh, yes, yes,” was the reply, “ it’s quite time you began to exhibit your pictures. You ’ll never think as much of them as you do now.”

Mr. Hunt himself was rarely very eager to exhibit his own productions to the public. I remember that, being urged to send pictures to the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia, he said, “ I don’t know why I should take the time and trouble to go about and collect my pictures, and send them off at my own risk. I have nothing in my studio that I care to send. If those who own pictures of mine would send them, I should not object to it, but I don’t care enough about the matter to waste time over it.” In answer to a letter begging him to exhibit some of his pictures on another occasion, in New York, he wrote :

“ MY DEAR Mr.—: I have not any picture at present which I care about sending to the exhibition. Exhibitions are generally, I find, anything but encouraging to production, and I believe the healthy habit of production will, in the end, do more for a man than all the praise or blame elicited from the public or the press.

“ I would n’t paint a picture for an exhibition with any more freedom than I would talk with any freedom in society or at a tea-party. I don’t feel inclined to hang myself up, voluntarily, either as a lunatic or an idiot; one of which places being always awarded to one who chooses to think or act for himself. I have peculiar notions about painting, and although I never succeed in doing what I undertake, yet I go on, if I don’t exhibit. I always feel like answering invitations to exhibit like invitations to parties, — that I regret that a previous engagement will prevent, etc.”

This little anecdote of an occurrence at one of his last public exhibitions in his studio in Park Square Mr. Hunt told one evening with most hearty enjoyment. The exhibition was a large one ; there were a good many oil-paintings beside a great number of charcoals, the latter reaching to the ceiling and covering one side of the great studio. A stranger was observed to look the things over earnestly, and finally to make a broad sweep of the eye over the collection as a whole. He then turned to his companion, and asked, “Is the man that did all these pictures here ? ”

“ Yes,” said his friend ; " that’s the artist, there,” pointing to Mr. Hunt.

“ What! you don’t mean to say that old feller in the corner, there, did all these pictures ? ”

“ Yes, that’s the artist.”

“ Wal,” said the stranger, giving Mr. Hunt another good look, “ he’s had time enough to do ’em in.”

Mr. Hunt was at this time about fiftyfour years old, but looked nearly twenty years older. This aged appearance was due chiefiy to his long gray beard, that made him resemble the portraits of Leonardo and Cellini taken when they were very old men.

Mr. Hunt was very amusing about his growing old sight, for which he had permitted me to prescribe proper eye-glasses, that he bought at Thaxter’s. One evening, proposing to read us a letter that he had received, he took from his pocket an unpleasantly common-looking pair of glasses, and, anticipating my inquiry, said, “ These eye-glasses I bought in the street for twenty-five cents. They seem to be about as good as those you prescribed. The fact is those were a little too good. I broke the spring, and carried them to be mended. They were to be done the next day, which was a week ago, but I don’t think I shall call for ’em. I might break ’em if I had ’em, and Thaxter will take good care of ’em.” He then, as usual for some weeks at this period, hung the eye-glasses on the end of his prominent nose, wrong side up, so that the spring lay over his mustache, and gravely began to read.

He carried at this time a cheap silver watch. It was “ hermetically sealed,” as he called it. You could, if you wished, put it in a tub of water over night. There could never be any necessity for opening it, as it was wound and its hands set by the stem. It made a noise in winding like a watchman’s rattle, and if the stem were turned the wrong way it made just as much noise, and did the machinery no harm. He was constantly taking this remarkable watch out of his pocket, swinging it around by its chain, and winding it both ways as noisily as possible, remarking that it was “ the most amusing watch he ever had; very companionable, too; worth more than its cost as a toy to play with.”

Henry C. Angell.