Editor's note: The following article was published in Resource Library on July 18, 2016 with permission of Elizabeth Ives Hunter. The article was written in conjunction with the exhibits "Robert Douglas Hunter and His Students," on display June 30 - September 5, 2016 at Bryan Memorial Gallery, 180 Main Street, Jeffersonville, VT and "Robert Douglas Hunter: A Life in Art," on display June 18 - August 13, 2016 at the Cape Cod Museum of Art, 60 Hope Lane, Dennis, MA. If you have questions or comments regarding the text or images, please contact the author via:
Robert Douglas Hunter
Elizabeth Ives Hunter
Visitors to New England this summer will have an opportunity to see two exhibitions of work by New England painter Robert Douglas Hunter (1928-2014).
In Jeffersonville Vermont the Bryan Gallery's Robert Douglas Hunter and His Students will be showing both still lives and landscapes by Hunter alongside the work of 17 of the men and women who studied with him during his long teaching career. Hunter has twice been honored for his teaching and contribution to the education of artists in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, first in a citation in 1979 by then Governor Edward King inrecognition of his many years of painting in Provincetown and Boston and his contribution to the education of youth,and posthumously in 2015, by the Massachusetts legislature. This last was given in recognition of his leadership in artistic creativity and his legacy of inspiration and support to several generations of artists on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and beyond.
In Dennis Massachusetts the Cape Cod Museum of Art offers Robert Douglas Hunter: A Life in Art, a true retrospective exhibition of Hunter's work from the time he first studied with Henry Hensche at the Cape School of Art in 1949, through his five years of study with R. H. Ives Gammell until the end of his career in 2014. Included in this exhibition will be portraits, landscapes, pencil drawings and still lives, as well as two studies for mural decorations. The exhibition will be hung in the natural light gallery which the museum named in his honor in 2001.
From the time he was eight years old, Hunter knew that he wanted to paint more than anything else. As an adolescent he took Saturday classes at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and he credits two courses on abstract painting with helping him to observe shapes first as abstract elements and secondarily as specific objects. He credited this as key to being able to achieve greater unity of overall design. After graduating from high school, Hunter spent two years in the Marine Corps, and then enrolled in Vesper George Art School, Boston, where he completed the prescribed course in three years and remained for a year of post-graduate work. During this period, he spent much time in the Museum of Fine Arts copying the great works of art.
While at Vesper George, Hunter saw Henry Hensche give a painting demonstration and was impressed with the way that he dealt with color and mass. It was a revelation because Hunter's training to this point had concentrated on a linear approach. In the summer of 1949 Hunter went to Provincetown to study in Hensche's class and this was the first time that he had ever gone out of doors with paints and painted the effect of sunlight directly on a landscape.
"When one is working out of doors instead of inside, the big shapes of nature are simplified, even on a gray day. And the thing that intrigued me particularly about Mr. Hensche as a teacher is that he urged his students to use a palette knife-a blunt, rather crude instrument that forces you to capture big shapes and try to interrelate them."[i]
In Provincetown, Hunter met R. H. Ives Gammell with whom he spent the next five years studying in a small atelier class. Gammell required sound technical knowledge and provided his students with a broad cultural experience by urging them to read extensively and providing tickets to opera, ballet and concerts. His program encouraged the students to see impressionistically and his gift to the students was to teach them the craft of painting so that they could give voice to their own artistic vision. The earliest painting in the exhibition at the Cape Cod Museum of Art is The Bowditch Statue which was done in 1952 when Hunter was still studying with Gammell. The subject is a carved granite statue by Miss Mia Bowditch who was a life-long friend of Gammell.
In 1950, while working with Gammell, Hunter also began a teaching career at the Vesper George School of Art in Boston which lasted until the school closed in 1983. He also taught at the Worcester Art Museum from 1965 to 1975. In later years, young painters would often come to him asking advice or for a criticism. He gave these freely and at no charge just as Gammell had done.
Hunter is perhaps best known for his still lives. Using a table top set at eye level, he chose to arrange a variety of objects, fruit, plant material and drapery in compositions to attract the eye of the observer and lead the viewer into an intricate pattern composed of both positive and negative shapes, and varying color values. The canvas was often placed next to the still life arrangement so that the artist could compare nature (the arrangement) to his work on the canvas. The painting table, which held the pallet and brushes, was twelve to sixteen feet from the canvas so as to allow the painter to see all of the parts of the arrangement related to the whole visual experience. Hunter used this sight-size method throughout his life but in later years, with restricted mobility, he would bring the canvas closer to his painting table, maintaining the visual comparison between nature and the canvas but rendering the arrangement under life size.
Hunter always was alone in his studio when he was deciding on an arrangement and his colleagues, family and friends knew that at this part of the process visitors to the studio were not welcome. However, once the arrangement had been organized to his satisfaction, he was more than willing to have visitors come in to watch or to chat. He was fond of telling visitors how, when he was painting, he was not looking at object like a piece of fruit or a clock, but rather, he was looking at abstract shapes made up of color and value. If he was able to paint what he was looking at accurately then he would have achieved his goal of capturing visual truth. In Arrangement with a Seth Thomas Clock, you look closely at the face of the clock, you will see a reflection of Hunter's face. He had no intention of painting a self-portrait and was both surprised and amused when he realized that his likeness was in fact part of the composition. This illustrates what he meant when he talked about painting only what you see and not associating what you see with a particular object but rather with a shape or a color value.
The sight-size method of painting works well for other forms of painting as well as for still life. Using the same principles for landscape and portraits insured that Hunter was always able to see the individual parts of his chosen subject as they relate to the whole visual experience. At the Cape Cod Museum of Art there are several portraits including a wonderful pastel head of Jerry Irma, a young man from Provincetown and Judy Rann, daughter of Provincetown painter Vollian Burr Rann (1897 - 1956).
The evolution of Hunter's still life style is marked by experimentation and in Truro to the Sea, painted in 1954, we see a view of the Truro shore enhanced by the inclusion of pine branches and artfully placed flora, including stagg-horn sumac which later became a favorite inclusion in more traditional still life paintings. I asked him how he had painted this piece and he replied that the landscape was an invention, drawn from memory and familiarity with the Cape, but that he had used actual pine branches as models, observed not in the studio, but in nature where he sketched them and then transferred and arranged them to suit his purposes.
Arrangement with a Horseshoe Crab was painted more than a decade later and was also an experiment because a friend of the family worked for a steel company which was making metal panels for the facades of buildings. The company wanted to find alternative uses for these panels and Hunter was among the artists who were given panels to work on -- rather like renaissance panels. Here the crab and glass floats were arranged on sand in the studio and the sky and trees were painted from memory and arranged to suite the overall composition.
The late Julian Baird, owner of The Gallery at Trees Place in Orleans Massachusetts was one of the dealers handling Hunter's work and he was always eager to make suggestions for new types of still life arrangements. One such which Hunter accepted with enthusiasm was to include a painting, either by himself or another artist, in a still life. There are two fine examples which demonstrate the usefulness of this device. Homage to Ives Gammell, painted in 1993, includes William Paxton's painting of a youthful (age 28) Ives Gammell along with a photograph taken in his old age and visual references to his seminal series based on Frances Thompson's poem The Hound of Heaven. Frederick Judd Waugh's powerful painting Heavy Surf is the central object in Hunter's still life Homage to Frederick Judd Waugh. Here, the design of Waugh's painting is the dominant theme in the Hunter still life, enhanced by its containing frame and the object strewn on the table top in front of the picture.
Hunter painted landscapes regularly throughout his life. He would identify locations based on the way light fell across the land at various times of day and under disparate conditions -- full or partial sun, overcast, dawn or dusk. He was particularly fond of the morning light and would be out early to catch the first rays as they lit the landscape. Because of his interest in the difference that light and the changing seasons made on favorite spots he would often return to the same place, again and again, to marvel at and record these variations. He worked very quickly on landscape so as to have the big shapes and color notes in place before the light changed, then he would add those final touches which gave the piece a finished look and tied it to that particular day.
Perhaps the most serious challenge that a painter can face is that of doing a monumental decoration in an interior and this has been so since the early renaissance. Hunter was fortunate to have had the chance to compete for one and to have his design chosen. The Church of St. Mary of the Harbor in Provincetown has his Epiphany Mural on its wall behind the Baptistery. The cartoon from which the design was chosen is in the collection of the town of Provincetown and can be seen at the Cape Cod Museum of Art exhibition. In this mural we see impressionist observation combined with imaginative landscape and symbolic elements combining to make a harmonious whole. The mural was painted in Boston and then the canvas was installed in the church interior in three segments. In as much as there is unity of effect in the design with all the parts relating well to each other and to the whole, it represents a fine example of the artist's mastery of design and of his careful attention to emphasis and subordination.
The Bryan Gallery has included the work of selected Hunter students and the variety of their personal representations is in itself fascinating. It is an inclusive group and ranges from his first student, Sidney Willis, to his most recent, daughter Catherine Hunter Kashem. Other former students included, are: Bruce Bauman, Goeffrey Chalmers, T.A. Charron, Richard Copello, Neil Drevitson, Thomas R. Dunlay, Robert Scott Jackson, Stapleton Kearns, Gaylee Levee, David Lowrey, Dianne Panerelli Miller, John Murphy, Sergio Ruffo, Vail Pagliarani, Melody Phaneuf, Dennis Sheehan, and Sam Vokey.
Reflecting on his art and craft, and particularly on the relationship between student and teacher, Hunter wrote in 2005:
"We strive in our early years to learn our craft; therefore we search for a master teacher who has demonstrated this in his own work. Afterwards, there comes a long period of growth during which we experiment, embracing some ideas for fuller development and discarding others not useful to our creative needs. When our work begins to reveal individuality, it is still essential to pursue an honest observation of nature interpreted within the framework of varied compositions of our invention. If we fail at this point, we run the risk of displaying mannerisms that will inhibit our artistic growth. This is no small matter. It is a formidable challenge that we try to meet with all our resources. Yet the measure of our artistic success rests in the evaluation of generations yet to come."
As a teacher, he did his best to pass on the essential working methods of painting in the tradition that he represented without getting in the way of each student's individual development of their personal aesthetic style. He knew that excellence in design depended on the abstract patterning which necessarily was the underlying feature of the pose for a portrait, the objects chosen for a still life or the selection of the point of view for a landscape.
As is evident in the work of his students, he was able to pass to them his sense of design by abstract shape and color sensitivity while encouraging each to work in the way that best suited their own creative sensibilities. For example, if we examine Richard Copello's painting Majesty, Ghost of the Arctic is clear that he has used the underside of the owl's wing and the shadow it casts on the breast of the bird as a design element in the painting.
Each of the students represented in the Bryan exhibition has developed his or her own individual style but they share Hunter's design sensitivity and impressionist color sense.
i Robert Douglas Hunter in an interview with Darren R. Rousier at https:www.sightsize.com/past/robert-douglas-hunter
About the author
Elizabeth Ives Hunter was raised among painters and studios. Her father, Theodore W. J. Valsam was an architectural designer who worked with her Godfather, R. H. Ives Gammell on his murals and allegorical easel painting. She married Robert Douglas Hunter in 1968. Having begun her career as a banker, she retired as Executive Director of the Cape Cod Museum of Art in 2012. Previously she has held positions as Curatorial Advisor to the R. H. Ives Gammell Studios Trust, Adjunct Curator at the Maryhill Museum of Art in Goldendale, Washington and Exhibitions Curator at the Cape Cod Museum of Art. She has written and edited books on members of the Boston School and has been a past contributor to American Art Review. (left: Photo of Elizabeth Ives Hunter. Photo courtesy of Ms. Hunter)
(above: Robert Douglas Hunter, Bowditch Statue, 1952, oil on canvas, 17x14 inches. Private Collection)
(above: Robert Douglas Hunter, Arrangement with a Horseshoe Crab, 1967, oil on panel, 12x18 inches. Private Collection)
(above: Robert Douglas Hunter, Homage to Frederic Judd Waugh, 1992, oil on canvas, 36x46 inches. Collection of Cape Cod Museum of Art)
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Resource Library editor's note:
The above article was published in Resource Library on July 18, 2016, with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on July 18, 2016. In addition to the text, all images were provided by the author.)
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