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William Morris Hunt Dies Mysteriously at Isles of Shoals

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.


CONTINUE "The Mysterious Death of Mr. Hunt"

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