Oil study for W. M. Hunt, Flight of Night surfaces at auction
The Flight of Night, oil on canvas, 20 x 36"
William Morris Hunt's (1824-1879) 1878 murals for the New York State capitol building, completed in 1878, garnered him immediate fame. Hunt already was famous as Boston's leading painter of the post-Civil War period, for his popular classes in art, and as an advocate for French Barbizon art in this country. He was highly regarded and perhaps a natural candidate to be hired to create two vast allegorical murals for the magnificent new capitol building. Art historian Dr. Sally Webster has written extensively about Hunt in general, and this commission in particular. Suffice it to say that one of the two murals, The Flight of Night, was from the start, more popular and widely-published than the other, The Discoverer. Both murals no longer exist, suffering soon after their completion from their creation from what conservators term "inherent vice," that is, materials and in the case of murals, location, are bound to cause damage and in the cast of Hunt's murals, inevitable destruction. Many pencil, watercolor, and oil studies are known for the murals, a number in museum collections including the MFA Boston, Fogg Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Princeton University Art Museum. This study turned up at a modest estate auction, I spotted it immediately across the room but did not believe at first that it was anything other than a reproduction. Upon examining it, I saw that it was an oil on canvas on its original stretcher, but without a frame. A partial handwritten label pasted to the back identified the artist and title, with a signature of John G. Carter, one of Hunt's two assistants on the mural, and one of two artists to catalogue his estate when he committed suicide a few months after the mural was completed. Auction house cataloguers described the painting as Untitled European mythological scene, and an estimate of 300 to 500 dollars was imposed. Going home, I feverishly crammed a lot of research into a few days and finally arranged for an absentee bid but obviously someone else recognized the piece, as it went for multiples of the estimate, although still nowhere near its true value. I've had it cleaned and ordered a period frame. The painting, although still victim to some injury due to age, looks magnificent and I am the delighted owner of a study for an iconic American painting that is still much reproduced and widely known to art historians.