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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Abraham Lincoln, John Brown and Two Artists Named Hunt

I have been doing some basic research on two U.S. artists named Hunt, William Morris Hunt and Albert Hunt, and I’m looking for more information, especially on the latter.

William Morris Hunt
William Morris Hunt

I’ve done some preliminary reading on William Morris Hunt (1824-79), a Vermont-born artist who was heavily influenced by the Barbizon School of painting in France.  I understand that this was a pre-Impressionist style, and Hunt introduced it to New England after returning from France in 1855.  He lived in Newport, Rhode Island until 1862, when he moved to Boston, Massachusetts.   Hunt did a painting of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. For a good biographical sketch of Hunt, see Lonnie Pierson Dunbier's article at AskArt.com.
Hunt's Lincoln (1865)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Artists and art history folks will hopefully forgive me for not primarily focusing on this artist’s work.  My interest in him is based on a brief excerpt in an article “Records of W. M. Hunt” by Henry C. Angell, which was published in The Atlantic Monthly in May 1880.  It seems that Hunt had unfortunately committed suicide the previous year, and Angell published two articles about his life.  What got my attention was Angell’s recollection:
"Mr. Hunt had two long interviews with John Brown, and was greatly impressed by him.  He was a marvelous person; a great hero, like one of the old prophets, he said.  He made arrangements to paint his portrait, but meantime Brown went suddenly to his death in Virginia" (p. 663).
 This is not something that I’ve ever read about, but one could speculate that these “two long interviews” probably took place during Brown’s visits to New England in the last two years of his life.  We often hear of Brown having met with New England’s literati, and so it should not surprise us that other leading cultural figures at the time met and spoke to him.  Although Hunt could have met Brown in Boston, it is interesting that during Brown’s days as a public figure, Hunt was living in Rhode Island, where Brown had at least one good connection, the abolitionist entrepreneur, Edward Harris, who sent money to Brown’s family prior to the hanging in Virginia.  Whatever the case, it’s too bad that Angell did not write at greater length about this, although someone may want to look into Hunt’s papers to find out if more information exists about his “interviews” with Old Brown.  Hunt’s conclusion, that Brown was a “great hero” and a figure like the biblical prophets, was not unusual.  But it is fascinating to learn that Hunt wished to do Brown’s portrait.  Too bad that he never succeeded in doing so.  The last phrase about Brown going “suddenly to his death” probably means that the shocking Harper’s Ferry raid obviously ruined Hunt's plan to produce an artistic portrait of the Old Man.

Albert Hunt

The hunt for Albert Hunt (1826-98) has been considerably less successful, although he is just as interesting, if not more so.  All that I can find is that Albert Hunt was a Methodist clergyman and a skilled charcoal sketch artist, and he is remembered only for his famous sketch of President Abraham Lincoln, made in 1865.  Thus far, I have found a number of references to the Methodist minister named Albert Sanford Hunt, a New York clergyman, a bachelor, and an alumnus of Roberts Wesleyan College.  This is probably the same Albert Hunt who sketched President Lincoln in life, at City Point, Va., on March 27, 1865.  It seems that Hunt knew General Ulysses S. Grant and was present at Grant’s headquarters when Lincoln visited.  His sketch of Lincoln is said to be the best “in life” rendering of Old Abe, and you can purchase it on-line from the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop for $125,000.  Interestingly, the Rev. Albert S. Hunt’s sermon in memory of the assassinated president is included in an 1865 publication, Our Martyr President, Abraham Lincoln: Voices from the Pulpit of New York and Brooklyn.

Albert Hunt's "from life" sketch
of Lincoln, March 1865
Thus far, I have not found anything that precisely connects the Rev. Albert S. Hunt to the Rev. Albert Hunt, sketch artist of Lincoln in 1865, even though it seems obvious that the two are one and the same.  Still, I’d prefer to get conclusive proof.  Besides, with all due respect to Lincoln, I’ve got bigger fish to fry insofar as Hunt the sketch artist likewise is connected to a rendering of John Brown.  Indeed, whereas the painter William M. Hunt planned on executing a portrait of Brown but never did so, it seems the charcoal sketch artist Albert Hunt actually completed a sketch of the Old Man, specifically portraying him seated in his jail cell in Charlestown. 

Albert Hunt's sketch of Brown in jail
published only once in 1909
To my knowledge, Albert Hunt’s sketch of Brown has only been published once, 101 years ago in an article by Eleanor Atkinson for The American Magazine, including the cutline that reads, “A sketch from life by Albert Hunt.”  First, I would like to locate this sketch if is extant.  If Atkinson used it for her article in 1909, it hopefully was accessible to her through Hunt’s papers.  If it was in the hands of a private collector, it may be as good as lost.  Second, I would like to investigate the notion that Hunt made the sketch “from life” as he did in the case of Lincoln.  I am more than inclined to doubt that this is actually a "from life" sketch, and presume it was the assumption of the magazine editor.  To be sure, in both the Lincoln and Brown sketches by Hunt, the artist’s eye for detail is evident.  In the 1865 Lincoln sketch, Hunt captures a snapshot image, including the pages of  The Richmond Dispatch over Abe's long, crossed legs, along with his bag and shawl behind him.  In Hunt’s Brown sketch, there is similar detail: Brown is also seated, and behind his chair there appears to be a pitcher and washbowl, along with the barred window of the cell behind him.   In contrast to Lincoln’s newspaper, Brown holds a Bible on his lap, and his head is bandaged in keeping with the wounds he sustained when at least two marines assaulted him in the armory engine house at Harper's Ferry.

There are a number of reasons to doubt that Hunt’s Brown sketch was made “from life.”  First, although he had many guests in his jail cell, there is no reference that Hunt ever visited Brown or that such a portrait was made.  Furthermore, we know of the sculptor Edward A. Brackett’s somewhat dangerous visit to Charlestown during Brown’s incarceration, and that he was not permitted to enter the jail in order to expedite the prerequisites for the sculpture.  Indeed, Brackett had to connive even to get within adequate distance of Brown in the jail house, and had to rely on someone else to take the necessary measurements--the whole time being suspected as an “abolitionist spy.”  Had Hunt made such a venture, it would probably have yielded similar results and certainly would have been on record in some later newspaper interview or article.  

Finally, the details of his sketch, though basically realistic, are inexact and seem more in keeping with a work done from the artist’s studied imagination.  Brown’s beard is far too long, especially since it was cropped fairly short at the time of the raid—and since he is also wearing a bandage, which would date a sketch "from life" as having been done fairly early in November, when Brown's wounds were still fresh.  Furthermore, the bandage itself is wrapped around his head, rather than atop his head where he sustained a deep wound.  

As of yet, I have no date for Hunt’s Brown sketch, but obviously it was done after some details of Brown’s incarceration were made known in books and newspapers.  If possible, readers are solicited to contribute more information; I hope to update you on further developments, particularly relating to Albert Hunt's work on Brown.

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