If Alfred William Hunt were a character in a musical, he would be Amos Hart of “Chicago,” Roxy’s invisible “Mr. Cellophane” of a husband.
As an artist, Alfred William (A.W.) Hunt is underappreciated when it comes to 19th century British painting. He was never admitted into the prestigious Royal Academy of Painting, and until recently, his work has not been acclaimed like other landscape artists such as J.M.W. Turner.
“The Poetry of Truth: Alfred William Hunt and the Art of Landscape,” an exhibit showcasing the artist’s work during his lifetime, opens at the Yale Center for British Art this Saturday. The exhibit seeks in part to rectify both misconceptions about Hunt as well as about his art. Christopher Newall, one of the curators of the exhibit and an expert on Hunt’s work, reveals that lack of quality of Hunt’s pieces is not the reason behind his relative obscurity.
“The Victorian art world was incredibly commercialized and A.W. Hunt seemed to be absolutely hopeless at navigating it,” said Newall. “He was an innocent, sincere, highly educated man.”
It is A.W. Hunt’s background that adds interest to his work. Born in Liverpool, England, in 1830, Hunt was well-educated as a child and later attended Oxford University. It was at Oxford that he developed an interest in the Pre-Raphaelite school of painting, also known as the “truth to nature” approach advocated by those such as eminent art critic and writer John Ruskin.
“Poetry of Truth” is organized mostly by chronology, with some geographically grouped images. The arrangement provides viewers with a striking path of Hunt’s career, from the rather staid beginning to the electrifying end. One is able to see, quite literally, the evolution of the artist’s work from detached observation to deeply-rooted connection with the landscape.
The first room, or bay, of the exhibit focuses mainly on A.W. Hunt’s early period of painting in the 1840s and 1850s, when he was mostly influenced by other Pre-Raphaelite painters. Some of the images are stylized and somewhat crude in appearance, such as the “Watsdale Head from Styhead Pass” of 1853. The painting is an oil-on-canvas of mountain scenery, and though quite accurate in its portrayal of reality, it lacks the transcendence of Hunt’s later work. Scott Wilcox, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the YCBA, characterizes this as a period of indecision for Hunt, when he was unsure whether or not to pursue art as a profession.
The second bay marks Hunt’s realization that he wanted to become an artist for life. Here, the paintings are decidedly passionate, with an intensity that is lacking in some of Hunt’s earlier works. While many artists depended upon traditional subjects, Hunt was true to his Northern English roots, often finding inspiration in landscapes there. Newall maintains that Hunt’s background is a reason for the artist’s imaginative approach to painting.
“Liverpool, and Northern England, had a kind of alternative art world,” said Newall. “A lot of Hunt’s paintings are really hymns to the beauty of the North of England.”
When Hunt moved to the Northern English town of Durham, he painted a view of the town entitled “Durham, from below Framwell gate Bridge” in 1865. The watercolor is a view of the town from beneath it, as a person gazing up at the side of a bridge. The technique of bright, focused colors that meld into each other blends the sky into the buildings and further into the water. The viewer is drawn into the chalky smokiness of Hunt’s picture, as much for the unique texture and colors as for the intimate perspective it creates.
An important aspect of A.W. Hunt is his recognition of human as well as natural landscapes. One of his most intriguing and moving works is the Turnerian “Iron Works, Middelesbrough” 1863 which depicts an iron foundry. The figures are blurred into indistinct features; smoke and fumes engulf the entire painting. This landscape of inhumanity becomes a window into processes of the Industrial Revolution.
The third and fourth bays contain what are arguably Hunt’s masterpieces. These works, painted mostly in the 1860s and 1870s, have a clearly defined style and a greater purpose beyond the beauty of an image. “Tynemouth Pier: Lighting the Lamps at Sundown” 1866, a painting which is part of the permanent collection of the YBAC, has the beautiful color tones of previous Hunt works. But in this painting, Hunt also shows the raging sea crashing onto the carefully constructed pier. The artist’s broader statement explores nature’s ability to interfere with the best of human endeavors.
“Bay of Naples — a Land of Smoldering Fire” 1871 is a supreme example of A.W. Hunt’s ability to transform the visual into the psychological. A view from above, the picture shows the ships and the water at dusk, using colors that penetrate because of their density and depth. A small white figure on the edge of the hillside is indicates that the sea is not all-consuming, and yet the figure’s tiny size renders the scene all the more overwhelming.
Newall talked about the recent purchase of “Bay of Naples” by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a boost for A.W. Hunt’s reputation in art.
“This must mean that Alfred William Hunt is a serious artist,” he said.
So, more than 100 years after his death, Hunt has finally made it to the big time. And one can bet that many people will see Hunt’s work at the Met in New York City.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”1070″ ]