William Morris Hunt Dies Mysteriously at Isles of Shoals
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

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.” 

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Was he suicidal?

Hunt was his own worst critic, rarely satisfied with his work, and always striving to do better. His “unstable temperament” and bohemian lifestyle may have indicated to some that he suffered from mental illness. Many brief biographies simply list his death as a suicide, and he is even included among a study of known suicidal painters like Vincent Van Gogh.

Hunt certainly had reasons to be depressed. His father died when he was eight. He had bouts of sickness and depression. He was often brutally attacked by critics. In 1872 his Boston studio burned in a huge fire destroying much of his work and many paintings he had collected while in Europe. In 1874 Hunt separated from his wife, socialite Louisa Perkins.

Another Boston socialite who knew Hunt commented at his death, “He [Hunt] has put an end to his wild, restless, unhappy life. Perhaps it has saved him years of insanity which his temperament pointed to.”

 

WMHunt_and_Levi_Thaxter

 

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The Albany murals

In 1878, the year before his death, Hunt got the chance of a lifetime. He was offered a commission to paint two huge 16 x 45-foot murals at the New York Capitol in Albany. Hunt almost turned down the job because he was afflicted with an unknown condition that caused a “diminution of muscular strength.” Unable to resist, however, he took the job, and later wrote that, despite his fears, “the labor was not an exhausting one.” According to one account, “both his spirits and his strength improved visibly” once he started the herculean project. He wrote to a friend that he would rather paint the murals than be governor of New York.

 

The murals would be the crowning achievement of the Assembly Chamber at the capitol with its ornate 56-foot vaulted ceiling. But to complete the murals, Hunt and his assistant had to work from scaffolding 40 feet in the air. He had only a few months to complete the work in an unheated building in winter while painting directly onto the cold sandstone surface.

One fresco entitled “The Discoverer” relates to Christopher Columbus. The other, an allegorical work called “The Flight of Night,” shows a moon goddess in her horse drawn chariot driving the darkness into daylight. It was a vision that Hunt had painted and sculpted frequently in his life. Hunt biographer Sally Webster notes that these were the first monumental murals in this country by an American artists.

 

He finished the work in time for the dedication on January 6, 1879. It was a “superhuman effort,” one historian records, although Hunt “worked himself to exhaustion.”

Magical island air

Thomas Laighton, Celia’s father, originally built the Appledore Hotel as an island respite for adventurers and chronic invalids. Laighton himself said he had been cured of various maladies by the beautiful and fresh air that wafts across the Isles of Shoals. Boston physician Henry Ingersoll Bowditch even published an article in a medical journal proving scientifically, he believed, that the air at the Shoals was the most healthful on the entire Atlantic Coast.

 

“Just think of our having William Hunt here, just shuddered back from the dreadful verge, so attenuated, so pathetic!” poet Celia Thaxter wrote in the summer of 1879. “I hope and trust the air is going to do everything for him.”

 

Hunt arrived with his brother, his sister, and “his man Carter” who had worked with him on the Albany murals. They stayed in Celia’s private cottage. Years earlier her husband Levi had almost died in a boating accident, and thereafter refused ever again to visit the Shoals. But he made a rare exception that summer and accompanied his fragile friend back to Appledore, where Levi stayed in the room next door to minister to Hunt’s every need.

Celia offered to let Hunt stay in her famous parlor, painted green, adorned with flowers and hung with the works of famous Boston painters. Hunt refused. “You dear child,” Hunt told Celia, “you don’t know what a miserable, sick, weak, good-for-nothing I am, fit only for my bed.”

 

Despite his complaint, Hunt wrote upbeat letters of his recovery to Rose Lam, a former student. Those letters, archived at the Portsmouth Athenaeum, show Hunt improving, even gaining 10 pounds in July on the rich food at Appledore Hotel. “I suppose …it will take a long time to get well and strong enough to work,” Hunt wrote to Lamb, And he promised, in the future, to work less intensely and take breaks for recreation. Hunt improved enough to paint one last painting – a portrait of himself – that he either gave or sold to his friend Dr. Bowditch just days before his death.

William_Morris_Hunt_with_Paints

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A tragic accident

 

Hunt’s condition has been described as “nervous prostration” and “melancholia.” He experienced weakened muscles that “paralyzed his energies” and his brain was cloudy and so that he could not think clearly. For the painter and teacher, the possibility that he might be permanently disabled and had passed the peak of his career was a “source of extreme regret and disappointment” to Hunt.

 

Yet by the end of July, according to Celia’s letters, Hunt was much improved. The month of August, reunited with her husband and blessed with perfect weather, Celia considered 1879 the best of all summers. Hunt’s death changed all that.

Despite the suicide theory, the examining physician concluded that Hunt had more likely suffered a dizzy spell while walking. It had been raining and he was carrying an umbrella. The doctor theorized that Hunt leaned on his umbrella to steady himself, the umbrella snapped, and he fell into the pond. A piece of the umbrella was later found on the other side of the pool.

 

“A suspicion seems to have existed at the time that his death was a voluntary one,” the author of Hunt’s memorial catalog wrote immediately after his death. But the facts indicate otherwise. “His mental depression was the natural result of his physical disability; and his disability was a real one.” It was enough, according to his eulogist, to “diminish his power of resistance to accident.”

Hunt, in other words, was too weak to save his own life. Celia noted that the back of Hunt’s coat was dry and waving in the breeze, indicating that he had fallen forward into the pond and not thrown himself in on purpose.

 

Haunting the capitol

Barely 10 years after his masterpiece mural was installed in the Albany capitol, it was already deteriorating. Hunt had painted directly onto the sandstone wall, rather than on canvas, and moisture from the ceiling was destroying it slowly. Pieces of the mural wall were breaking off and falling onto the desks of legislators far below.

 

In 1888 the mural was covered and the ceiling slightly lowered, In 1911 a fire destroyed a portion of the Assembly Room. Then in 1939 worikmen uncovered Hunt’s murals, but they remain out of public view.

Stuart Lehman, educational director of the New York Capitol for 10 years, has seen Hunt’s “lost murals” up close. There are “only fragments left,” he says.

 

Does he believe Hunt killed himself? “That’s the impression I have gotten,” 

Lehman says.

 

And what about a rumor that Hunt was deeply depressed in 1879 because the state of New York did not pay him for the work done on the murals. “As far as I know he got paid for that,” Lehman says. And Hunt never lived long enough to learn about the moisture and the fire and the renovations that destroyed his masterpiece.

But there may be more to the story. Hunt, according to Lehman, believed that he would receive additional commissions to paint more murals at the New York capitol. That added work did not materialize in 1879 and Hunt was “very disappointed” Lehman says.

The capitol is undergoing a $48 million restoration, but Lehamn says there are no plans currently to restore the Hunt murals, because they are too deteriorated, and no plans to recreate them, because no color images of the originals exist.

 

Lehman tells the story of Hunt’s mysterious death at the Isles of Shoals to visitors during occasional “haunted” tours of the capitol building. “it’s a way to bring in the public and make them aware of the lost murals,” he says.

 

In 2002, Lehman notes, a group of paranormal researchers “took some readings” in the upper area of the Assembly Chamber where the fragmented remains of the murals are hidden. The results were difficult to interpret, he says, but the ghost-hunters thought they discovered a message that read: “William Morris is behind the door.”

 

“If anybody had a right to be haunting the capitol, it would be Hunt,” Lehman concludes.

 

 

Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson writes and lectures on NH history. His books are available at local bookstores and on Amazon.com. Robinson is also editor and owner of the popular history Web site SeacoastNH.com where this column appears exclusively online.