William Morris Hunt (March 31, 1824 – September 8, 1879), American painter, was born at Brattleboro, Vermont to Jane Maria (Leavitt) Hunt and Hon. Jonathan Hunt, who raised one of the preeminent families in American art. William Morris Hunt was the leading painter of mid-19th century Boston, Massachusetts.
Hunt’s father’s family, the Hunt family of Vermont, were among Vermont’s founders and largest landowners; his mother’s a family of wealth and prominence in Connecticut. Hunt attended Harvard College but withdrew in his junior year. Having been denied the opportunity to paint and draw by an overbearing father, Jane Leavitt Hunt resolved that her children would be given the chance to study the arts in the best academies—even if it meant moving to Europe to attend them.
Following the untimely death of his Congressman father from cholera, Hunt’s mother Jane took him and his brothers to Switzerland, the South of France and to Rome, where Hunt studied with Couture in Paris and then came under the influence of Jean-François Millet, from whom he learned the principles of the Barbizon school. The Hunt family remained in Europe for a dozen years. During part of that time Richard Morris Hunt and his brother William shared an apartment at 1 rue Jacob, close by the École des Beaux-Arts, where William Morris Hunt studied painting under Thomas Couture. “From the training and inspiration each of the brothers was to experience in the next several years in France would come great strides for each in his work,” writes historian David McCullough. “‘Mr. William Hunt is our most promising artist here,’ reported Thomas Appleton to his father.”
Afterwards, leaving Paris, he painted and established art schools at Newport, Rhode Island, where he had relatives, Brattleboro, Vermont, Faial Island in the Azores, where he had family connections and finally at Boston, where he painted, taught art and became a popular portrait painter.
William Morris Hunt died at the Isles of Shoals, New Hampshire, in 1879, apparently a suicide. Hunt had gone to the New Hampshire shore to recover from a crippling depression. But he continued to work, executing his last sketch three days before his death. His body was discovered by his friend New Hampshire poet Celia Thaxter.
His brother Richard Morris Hunt was a celebrated architect. His brother Leavitt Hunt was a well-known photographer and attorney. A fourth brother, Jonathan, was a Paris physician who also committed suicide.
The William Morris Hunt Library of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is named in honor of this painter. (Hunt was a founding member of the Museum of Fine Arts’ museum school). Following Hunt’s death, his Harvard classmates and other Bostonians contributed to a fund to purchase many of his paintings and donate them to the Museum of Fine Arts.
Aside from the Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Athenaeum has a number of the artist’s works in its collection, a gift of William Morris Hunt II. Also owning works by Hunt are New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre Museum in Paris, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Addison Gallery of American Art at Hunt’s alma mater Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the Currier Museum of Art in New Hampshire, theHarvard University Art Museums, Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and many others.
In accordance with a long expressed desire, William Morris Hunt was buried beside other family members at Weathersfield, Vermont, where he spent most of the last summer of his life. Two decades after Hunt’s death, his former pupil Helen Mary Knowlton published her biography of the Boston painter entitled The Art-Life of William Morris Hunt.