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William Morris Hunt Dies Mysteriously at Isles of Shoals

WM_Hunt002HISTORY MATTERS

The first reports called it suicide. Famed Boston artist William Morris Hunt, age 55, was discovered drowned in a tiny pond near the center of Appledore Island on September 8, 1879. Hunt had been staying at the Appledore Hotel at the Isles of Shoals since July with his close friends Celia and Levi Thaxter. Hunt had gone out for a morning walk alone, and when he did not return, a search party fanned out across the small island. (Continued below)

“I found him,” Celia Thaxter wrote to a close friend. “It was reserved for me, who loved him truly, that bitterness.”

Hunt’s glittering watch chain swung back and forth as his tall thin body was carried up the rocky path and placed on the piazza of the hotel where he had been sitting, watching the birds and listening to music for weeks.

“We took him in,” Celia wrote, “put in blankets, rubbed and rubbed. It was mockery. He had been dead for hours.”

WMHunt_Celia“There will be a thrill of surprise, and regret, not unmixed with horror,” the New York Times reported the following day at the announcement that Hunt had taken his own life. The cause of death was later amended to accidental drowning, but the debate continues.

Lifelong friends

William Morris Hunt was born in Brattleboro, Vermont in 1824. He and Levi Thaxter, both from prominent families, were college chums at Harvard. Hunt grew sickly in his senior year and his widowed mother took him and his four brothers off to Europe. (Another account says he was dismissed for trying to blow up a Harvard outhouse with gunpowder.) In Europe Hunt continued to paint, sculpt, and play music. He became heavily involved with the Barbizon school of realistic painting in France and brought this influence back to the United States in 1855. Hunt frequently visited Levi and his wife at their home in Newtonville, MA and attended Celia’s evolving salon of famous Boston-area artists, writers, and musicians at the Isles of Shoals.

Historian Van Wyck Brooks described Hunt as a “rangy, spare, muscular man with a bony nose and flashing eyes.” Although he looks in his self-portraits like a dour and humorless copy of Leonardo da Vinci or Don Quixote, the balding, bearded artist was apparently witty and animated in real life. He looked, in fact, surprisingly similar to his friend Levi Thaxter. It was Levi who convinced Hunt to publish his popular book Talks on Art (1875) when Hunt wanted to destroy the manuscript. Besides a growing reputation as a painter of portraits and later landscapes and murals, Hunt taught art classes, and unlike others, opened his school to women artists. In the 1860s and 70s Hunt was “the most powerful artistic force in Boston,” wrote critic Martha J. Hoppin. He is credited as having a major influence on artists like Winslow Homer and Childe Hassem. Hunt also “stirred up a rage in Boston for charcoal drawing” according to art historians.

He has been called “the most influential artist of his time.” Three months after his death the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston hosted a memorial exhibit of Hunt’s work. He was, according to the 1879 exhibit catalog, “beyond question among the first of American artists. He will certainly always retain that position.”

But his fame has faded. Hunt was an “excellent teacher,” according to one 20th century art critic, but “his painting never seemed to grow beyond the tentative promise of a good student.” 

CONTINUE "Mysterious Death of Mr Hunt"

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