Records of W. M. Hunt


ON Mr. Hunt’s return from Mexico, in the spring of 1875, we expected to see many sketches and paintings as souvenirs of his journey, but nothing of the kind was brought home. In their stead we found his studio resplendent with Mexican trappings, bricabrac, shawls, yellow draperies, a large collection of Mexican opals, and a pair of leather breeches. All these he showed and caressed with childish delight. Mexico was one of the most interesting countries in the world. There was nothing like it; he was going back another year to make a long stay. He put on his leather breeches, and strode about the studio for our amusement.

His bringing no paintings or sketches of consequence home with him was due probably to the fact that the journey was made for rest and recreation after a hard winter’s work at portrait painting. There were, to be sure, at the late sale several charcoal sketches purporting to be Mexican subjects, but it is doubtful if they were correctly named. The brown picture that has been already mentioned as having been painted the next day after the artist had seen a Jules Dupré was catalogued at the sale as a view at West Newbury. Years ago, when first exhibited, Mr. Hunt had called it a view in Weston. Artists record impressions, and the public like to have them named. Sometimes such impressions are more or less accurate transcripts of scenes in nature from a chosen point, but a landscape painting is often merely the artist’s impression of an effect, and bears no resemblance in composition to any one spot.

Mr. Hunt was an excellent man of business. At the time of the greatest depression in real estate, a house in Park Square was offered for sale by auction. Mr. Hunt talked over the purchase of this house a great deal, and with his usual earnestness. He was sure it would increase largely in value ; it was an entirely safe investment. He would like to occupy a part of it immediately, himself. To our surprise, he then named the exact sum that he proposed to give for it, adding that if it went above this sum he should not buy. To our suggestion that it would be a pity to lose it rather than go a few hundred dollars higher, if necessary, he said, “ I will not go one dollar higher. A man must have a limit, and wherever you put the limit there you must remain. You might as well not have a limit if you are going higher. I consider it a good purchase at my figures : it may be a good bargain at a higher price. I don’t know about that.” This astonishingly cool way of treating the matter, right in the face of his enthusiasm over the location of the house, its desirability, and the probable low price it would fetch, was a revelation to us; but we were not surprised afterwards to learn that the house was sold at a few hundred dollars above Mr. Hunt’s limit. He got some one to look after his interest at the sale, lest he might, under the impulse of the moment, go beyond his limit. On the Millets which he sold, a few years since, his profits were, he told us, in the neighborhood of one hundred dollars on every dollar invested. “ And,” he remarked, “ the Millets were sold below rather than above their market value.” He once showed us an unusually fine specimen of Diaz that he bought twenty years before for two hundred francs. It would easily bring fifty times that amount now.

Whenever,” said Mr. Hunt one day, “ in repainting a picture, there is a particular spot that you wish to save, paint it right out, or you will sacrifice the rest of the picture to it.”

I have spoken of Mr. Hunt’s having been invited to lecture in the Sunday afternoon course at Horticultural Hall, and his final decision not to accept the honor. He had already declined to deliver some lectures at Yale College, and afterwards a like request from Harvard College had not been complied with. As to the latter, he said, one evening, “ Professor-came round, at our club, and sat down by me and began to make himself agreeable. I did n’t mean he should get the better of me in that respect, so I made myself agreeable, too, just as agreeable as I could, — and you know, when I try, I can make myself pretty amusing; and I don’t think he got much the start of me in that line. Well, presently, after we had both been so agreeable that nothing further could be expected in that way, he asked me to deliver some lectures at Harvard College. I did n’t promise to do it, but I said I would think the matter over, and let him know. I have been thinking the matter over, and have pretty much concluded to ask him to permit such of the students as want instruction in art to come to me in my studio on certain evenings, when I will talk to them. I shall feel at home in my studio, and have plenty of pictures and drawings about me with which to illustrate my lectures. You see, I have my doubts whether they really want to learn anything about art at the college. Perhaps they only want me to come over there and lecture. If that’s all they want, I sha’n’t go. If they really want to learn, — if anybody really wants to learn,— I’m ready to teach. I like to teach. So I think I will just invite the authorities to let the students hear the lectures in my studio. If they are in earnest, they will accept my proposal; but I don’t expect it to be received very cordially. It is n’t what they want.”

The letter below is a draught of one that was sent in answer to the invitation from Yale College. The matter that follows, it was proposed, first, to embody also in the letter, but this was not done.

DEAR SIR, — In answer to your invitation to lecture on art before the Yale School of Fine Arts, I would say that my time is already more than taken up in trying to learn how to paint, and as I can get no information from lectures I do not believe I could give any. The world is full of people who lecture on art, and I will not interfere with them. Yours truly, W, M. HUNT.

“ Neither poets nor artists can be manufactured; much as ever they can be supported when they do exist.

No man can teach me to produce good work in art except a producer of good work, and he brings his work with him as a thinker brings brains and a fighter brings fists.

“ A talker may persuade himself that he knows everything. A doer persuades the world he knows something.

“ When the world wants wealth and works, it will demand of the financier and the critic some tangible proof of their wisdom; but paper and talk are easier handled, and will suffice for today.

“ It is well to listen to lectures to save one’s self the trouble of knowing anything, but if one wants to know anything of art he would better use his eyes ; for until some of the talkers have produced paintings and sculpture which will appeal to the ears, they can teach very little through that medium. I have known a deaf painter, but not a blind one.

“ If I am entitled to an opinion, it is through what I have done.

“ Works, not words, can instruct.

“ The only lessons that painters, or poets, or architects, or sculptors, have ever taught, or can ever teach, are in their works.

“ When an artist leaves his work to amuse people, he loses not only his time, but their respect.

“ The best thing about most lectures on art is that their effect is not lasting.

“ Lectures are like hash, — not very nourishing, but will do when one is so young he knows no better, or so old he has no teeth. You can’t expect a uniform.”

The uniform refers to a story of Mr. Hunt’s. A man ordered some hash at a restaurant. He presently found a soldier’s button in it, and on remonstrating with the waiter the latter said, “ What do you want? You can’t expect a whole uuiform in one plate of hash, can you? ”

“ The most interesting lecture I ever happened to hear was on language, when the speaker dealt with the material he was describing.

“ A man who wants to discover anything would better stand by Christopher Columbus on deck at night than listen to his lectures on the discovery of a new world.

“ How are we going to make painters by lectures to men ? We are going to make questioners and doubters and talkers. By painting and showing the painting of others we are to make painters. By working frankly from our convictions we are going to make them work from their convictions.

“ Most of us have been so taught to doubt and question that we have n’t time enough left in our life to express an opinion of our own. It is by having something to say, and not trying to say it in words, that one learns to paint.

“ One capable artist, with his assistants employed as formerly, would produce more good workers than all the schools in the country, and with this difference: that works would be produced instead of theories and advice and teachers. If good art is produced, take advantage of the fact, instead of inveigling hundreds into an occupation where not one in a thousand can make a living, unless he resort to talking, toadying, or speculation, all of which an artist can familiarize himself with when it becomes necessary, but which he is naturally averse to. If people are to be instructed or assisted by artists, artists must be employed in their legitimate occupation; an artist cannot live on compliments and conversation. If you want artists, respect art. If you want art, respect artists. It seems to me high time that something should be done to encourage producers. The country is being overrun with art teachers and lecturers, because we don’t want doers, but talkers. When we really want art there will be a call for artists to paint, and producers will be respected, employed, and encouraged. The world seems to want machines to manufacture artists, poets, statesmen, and philosophers ; but when these exist, neither their work nor their opinion is wanted. One is invited cordially to join the gang and produce what he is not to produce, — works. If he is a musician, he is invited to play for the world to march in to supper.

“ If Michael Angelo and Titian were living to-day, they would not be called upon to paint. They would be listened to by the wise, and told that the Greek only could produce art. Were they even to lecture from Maine to Georgia, artists would not necessarily rise up in their wake. We don’t want our hens to lay ; if they do, we throw away their eggs, and bring all the hens in the country to sit on gravel stones, hoping to hatch out wonders. We are all taught to criticise and find fault with things instead of being made to comprehend and appreciate them. This also comes from talking instead of doing. It is only one who has done something who can see in an embryo the possibility of what it may grow to. Those who are taught from the past see only the past. They ignore the existence of the present.”

Of modern painters, Mr. Hunt was fondest of Millet; next to him he mentioned oftenest, I think, Eugene Delacroix ; then Corot. He never quoted Couture. He liked Turner and Reynolds. Of the picture called the Slave Ship, he said, “I like it; it has breadth. A small man could n’t have painted it.” Speaking of the Rimmer statue of Hamilton, one evening, he said, “ People laugh at it a good deal ; but it’s not to be laughed at; there is noble feeling in it. No doubt it has faults enough ; but you just go down and stand near it, directly in front, so that you can look up to it, and you ’ll find it impressive.”

Once, in talking over the work of some of his lady students, I remarked that a certain painting by one of them I thought very creditable, on the whole, but that it lacked, in comparison with his work, just a certain quality that one might well suppose it would have. One could not expect great excellence in flesh tint, in color, and in composition, but the artist being a woman, and dressing well herself, ought, one might fancy, to excel in graceful and stylish arrangement of the dresses of her figures, and paint drapery fairly well. “ Yes,” said Mr. Hunt, “ one might think so; but the trouble is, she does n’t know what is under the dress that she paints. She did n’t begin drawing from the nude figure, and doesn’t know the anatomy of the human form well enough. Without this knowledge it is impossible to do draperies well and to give what you call style. Just hold up your arm a minute.” I held up my arm bent at a right angle, as for a tailor to measure for the length of a coat sleeve. “ Now,” continued Mr. Hunt, “ I will tell you every time before I touch your arm with my finger whether it is the flesh or the cloth of your coat that I shall touch. I know exactly where the arm itself is, notwithstanding the large folds of the coat sleeve.” He then went on touching the arm, saying every time before the touch, “coat,” “arm,” “arm,” “coat,” correctly. “Well, then,” I said, “there is no realty fine drapery painted in this country. I should think you would never see any that would entirely satisfy you.” “ That’s true,” he replied ; “ it’s very rare to find drapery satisfactorily painted until you get back to the old masters. They knew how to do it.”

Of the old painters Mr. Hunt quoted most frequently, perhaps, Veronese; then Michael Angelo, Titian, and Velasquez.

Mr. Hunt felt that he was very strongin the artistic anatomy of the human figure. In early life he had been a hard student in Germany, and was a very correct and painstaking draughtsman. When at school in Düsseldorf he was noted for this special talent. Powell, the painter of the great picture at Washington illustrating the discovery of the source of the Mississippi, who visited Düsseldorf while Mr. Hunt was a student there, says that he displayed remarkable talent as a draughtsman. His studies from the nude and the antique were so perfect in drawing, and so impressed his teachers, that he was declared to be qualified to paint long before he had been at the academy his full three years. Nothing of their kind, so far as fine drawing is concerned, with the possible exception of a work or two of Page, has ever been done in this country comparable with the Wardner portrait, the figure of the painter’s mother, or the portrait of Mrs. Adams. Other things of the artist’s are finer in color; but Mr. Hunt’s greatest achievements lay not so notably in the direction of color as in his drawing, modeling, and in his noble style. He was especially satisfied with his ability to paint hands correctly and elegantly when he chose. Being remonstrated with, one evening, for exhibiting a figure in which the hands were in a half-finished state, he retorted, “ Well, the picture belongs to me. I don’t ask anybody to buy it. It’s my picture, and I suppose I can exhibit it if I choose. You say the hand looks erysipelatous. It does. It looks as though it had a very bad ulcer on it; but nobody is obliged to look at it unless he chooses. Most people know by this time whether I can paint a hand or not; whoever doubts it may look at my portraits and see.”

His subordination of bis skill in drawing, for the purpose of giving prominence to some other artistic quality in his work, at times misled certain critics. Thus, of his smaller picture called The Bathers, when he brought us the photograph in the autumn of 1876, heremarked, “ I don’t pretend that the anatomy of this figure is precisely correct. In fact, I know it is not. It’s a little feminine; but I did it from memory, without a model, and was chiefly occupied with the pose. I do think the balancing idea is well expressed, and it is the fear of disturbing that which prevents my making any changes in the contour of the figure. I know that I could correct the anatomy, but if the pose were once lost I might never be able to get it again.”

It is not known for what particular occasion the following memoranda were made: —

“ A good deal of our so-called cultivation is like sand-papering the surface of the eye.”

“ The only real cultivation is that where the instinct is preserved in all its clearness, notwithstanding all that is added to it.”

“ The great secret is to add, and not to swap.”

“ The false tooth, the glass eye, are types of the highest civilization and cultivation. Pedantry fills a tooth; affectation and a glass eye are things known only in modem civilization, — in states of modern culture.”

“ Intelligence is water-power; wit is steam. Expand a drop of intelligence by the fire of enthusiasm and fervor of desire, and it multiplies its force by thousands.”

“ There is more force in speed than in weight.”

While Mr. Hunt’s sensitive organization gave him a capacity for enjoyment unknown to differently constituted people, it gave him also, naturally, what might be termed an abnormal susceptibility for suffering, from a class of slight or temporary annoyances, that, with most people, pass unnoticed.

His spacious studios never pleased him long, and he was disposed to find fault with them a great deal, in a humorous way. Once the noise of rats so disturbed him that he felt forced to seek new quarters. Then his numerous stoves gave him such trouble that he could not work. A slight leak in the roof, on another occasion, had a similar effect. Finally he built the large studio in Park Square, and, having moved into it, we heard no more of these troubles.

Doubtless, a great part of this sensitiveness was due to ill health. He rarely complained of feeling unwell, and spoke of his health with reluctance. Appearing tired, one evening, when we noticed it and asked him how he was, he said, “ Oh, I don’t know ; if I should begin with my bad feelings, I should keep it up all the evening. What is it that Emerson says, — Beware how you unmuzzle the valetudinarian ? ”

One evening he said, “ After all, I don’t know but the barbarous tribes that kill off their old men are pretty wise. You know they put an old man in a tree, and then shake it. If he’s strong enough to hold his place in the tree, they allow him to live another year ; but if he falls to the ground, they kill him with clubs.”

Probably his tenderness towards those who were ill, or not strong, and his sympathy for them were quickened by his own sufferings.

One of our household had sent him some home-made chocolate drops, upon the receipt of which he forwarded them, with the following letter, to a friend and pupil who was ill; —

Mr DEAR Miss—: I bring you some of Millet’s drawings, by way of making you patient to stay in-doors this blustering weather. I also add a little box which I found on my return to the studio.

The note is so pretty that I send it too, for I feel that had Mrs.—known you were ill she would have sent you the sugar-plums and the note. At any rate, to have received them is so grateful that I pass them along, as in the game of button, button.

Yours truly, W. M. HUNT.

In a letter from Weathersfield, Vermont, postmarked June 30, 1879, to his assistant, Mr. Carter, who had just left him, at the time when Mr. Hunt was supposed to be slowly regaining his health and strength, he says, — “ I imagined you arriving in Boston a little while after our tea, and yesterday at about the same hour safely at home in Westboro’. What a relief it must have been to you, and what a reward for your unbounded patience, and what a let up ! Well, I must n’t be sentimental, but I will express my gratitude. Since you left I have endeavored to take your place in taking care of me. ... I really do not want you to hurry back on my account. Do try to have a good time, so you may not lose your faith in the whole human race.”

A few days earlier he had written to Mrs. Carter : “ It must be dreadfully aggravating for you to have your husband penned up here so long ; but I can tell you one thing : when he does get back (if that ever happens), what there is left of him will have gone through a fiery furnace of patience, and I will guarantee that the temper of the old Damascus blades was nothing in comparison.

“ I really pity him and you too, but I am so selfish that I pity myself the most; and though I would like to be generous and give him up a little, I find myself selfishly clinging to him.”

On the outside of an envelope he wrote, in addition to the superscription, “ Be careful of this: beyond value.” Within was the following note : —

MY DEAR MRS.—: I received this morning, through the hands of our mutual John, a beautiful velvet wig. It fits perfectly, and sticks closer to my head than my hair has.

The following lines, written from the Isles of Shoals on August 23d, only about two weeks before his death, is one of the very few instances when he alludes to his health : —

Saturday, P. M.

MY DEAR BOY, — I feel a little better ; if I can only get some more sleep I shall do well. Yours,


Notwithstanding his weakness and lack of sleep, his generous impulse towards a brother artist led him to write as follows on August 16th : —

MY dear—: I should like to be in Boston and look over Tom Robinson’s pictures with you, and enjoy the satisfaction of seeing something fine. I am sure Tom deserves the greatest credit for his pluck, perseverance, and capacity, and I am heartily grateful that he has been so successful.

He is a real man, and it does not surprise me to know that he has painted his real self. I am glad you wrote me about his pictures, as I was desirous to know about them . . . When you see him just shake him by the hand for me.

The above was an unusually long letter for him at this time. Generally his letters were very short, but full of characteristic humor, with never a hint at illness or despondency.


DEAR C—: Weight yesterday afternoon, east wind, cool, thick woolen clothes and coat, and thick boots, after tea . . . .145

This morning, rather warm and some changes of clothing . .141

Three days ago, thin suit and warm weather . . . .137

Weather and weight variable. If it grows as hot here as in Danielsonville I should weigh . . 000

Yours truly, W. M. HUNT.

The great achievement of Mr. Hunt at Albany involved more labor than is generally supposed. Necessarily hurried, it was an especially anxious and exhausting work. The legislature was to meet at an appointed time, and the staging must come down on a certain day, whether the paintings were finished or not. It could not be known beforehand that just fifty-five days’ labor would end the task. But it was known that the final and telling touches must be made by Christmas, and rectified, if necessary, on that day; after this, no additions or subtractions were possible. Whether the two large compositions could be satisfactorily put upon the walls within the prescribed time seemed a question ; and it became still more a question when, after painting the first day, they found, on climbing up to their places the next morning, that their day’s work had pretty nearly vanished into the texture of the stone. The faith and courage of Mr. Hunt’s accomplished assistant were invaluable ; and later, during the progress of the work, his solemn promise that, if their effort proved a failure, he would himself paint out both pictures in a single night was greatly comforting to Mr, Hunt.

During these fifty-five fatiguing days the artist and his assistant were always up in the morning to catch the rising sun, so as to carry a fresh impression to the work upon the Flight of Night. Every evening they watched the waning daylight, and noted the effects of figures and objects against the setting sun as a study for the Discoverer.

There had been also immediate preparatory work on these pictures in the studio at Boston, of nearly five month’s duration. Mr. Hunt had returned from Niagara about the first of July, after accepting the commission for these paintings, and had set about the task at once. The separate figures and parts of figures were to be studied, drawn, painted, and combined to fit the great arched spaces where they were to go.

For the Flight of Night, the heads of the horses, their legs and feet, were all freshly painted from life. Anahita, the Goddess, was painted from a life model. Sleep and the Child were painted from life, also the dusky Guide. For the other picture, the Discoverer, Science, Hope, and Fortune were painted from life models. Parts of these figures were also drawn and colored as separate studies ; as, for instance, the heads, hands, and arms.

Of the two compositions entire and of their separate parts, there were made at this time upwards of thirty careful charcoal drawings, and in pastel more than twelve. Seventeen oil-paintings, twelve inches by thirty, of the compositions complete were also done. These were made chiefly to test the effects of proposed combinations or contrasts of color. In addition, there were two large paintings, one of each subject, about six by eight feet, and two large pictures in oil of Fortune, of about the same size.

Blocks of stone like that in the walls of the Assembly Chamber at Albany were sent him, that the effect of pigment upon them might be tested.

Meantime, in a room under the studio, paints were being ground and tints mixed and hermetically sealed in five-pint tin cans, to be in readiness for transportation to the scene of his great work. Where all this grinding and mixing was done in secret no one knows; but Mr. Hunt never made his appearance in this room until the grinder, who knew nothing of the destination of his products, had gone home for the day ; then he went down and inspected the results with the greatest interest.

But after all this painstaking preparation, he found, on arriving before the great walls at Albany, that the space within the arch upon which the Flight of Night was to be put was not sufficiently high for the composition as it had been proportioned. It was necessary to lower the figure of tlie goddess, and to change the relative positions of the horses, so that they should be brought more together towards the centre of the panel. Some important changes were also made in the grouping of the figures in the Discoverer. The composition of this picture appears always to have been more tractable than that of tlie Flight of Night. There had been fewer and less radical changes made in it since it was first drawn in charcoal, twenty - three years ago. The Flight of Night had been first put on paper in 1847, ten years earlier. It had undergone many changes before these last at Albany, and long before it was ever supposed it would be anything more than an easel picture. The goddess was first drawn shielding her eyes from the coming light with her raised arm. She was looking forward, was differently seated, and her chariot was winged.

Henry C. Angell.