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Study for "Three Generations," also titled "Brittany Peasants at a Fete Listening to Music"

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Study for "Three Generations," also titled "Brittany Peasants at a Fete Listening to Music"

Artist: William Morris Hunt (American, 1824-1879)

Date: c. 1866
Medium: Charcoal on light tan-colored, medium-weight laid paper
Overall: 11 1/4 × 8 1/2in. (28.6 × 21.6cm)
Signed: Recto, lower left (charcoal): 'WMH' (enclosed in a rectangle)
Markings: Watermark, right edge: "Her[V?]det L[.] B[.] a[?] Brunelle"
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 84.2
Text Entries

Hunt was one of the first American artists to participate in the later-nineteenth century’s revival of charcoal drawing.(1) The international popularity of this medium was linked to a growing interest in tonal drawing (called dessin de l’effet) at the expense of linear design.(2) His claim that “the nearest thing to nature is a black-and—white drawing” helps explain why Hunt valued charcoal as a drawing medium.(3)

Sally Webster has suggested that Hunt may have made the MWPI drawing in the summer of 1866 when he was in Dinan, Brittany, at the beginning of his second sojourn in France.(4) On this trip he bought his first box of char- coals. Hunt recalled, “That box was the beginning of all the charcoal-drawing. . . . I took it down into Brittany with me and liked it very much.”(5) Like many of his con- temporaries, Hunt considered his charcoal drawings to be independent works of art and exhibited them during his lifetime.(6)

The MWPI sheet may be a preliminary study for Hunt’s lost painting, Study for “Three Generations” (also titled Brittany Peasants at a Fete Listening to Music).(7) When he was in Barbizon in the early 1850s, Hunt was profoundly influenced by Jean Francois Millet’s subject matter and painting style.(8) That influence waned while Hunt lived in the United States the following decade. However, the seemingly humble subject matter of the MWPI drawing and its blocky and psychologically remote figures suggest a renewed interest in Millet when Hunt returned to France the second time.(9) The qualities of charcoal perfectly suited Hunt’s work habits and esthetic aims. It enabled him to make drawings quickly(10) and was convenient to use out—of—doors. Charcoal allowed Hunt to render effects of light and dark easily and to concentrate on generalized forms instead of minute details.

The MWPI drawing may have been laid down with large charcoal sticks, called gros buissons, that Hunt is known to have favored.(11) Hunt’s skill at exploiting char- coal’s tonal range is apparent in the sheet’s silvery middle tones and dark blacks, which were probably blended with a stump. While many of Hunt’s late charcoal landscapes were made with black lines drawn on a lighter sheet of paper, the MWPI sketch was created by working from dark to light. Hunt made the highlights in the foreground and on the trunks of the trees by erasing the charcoal so that the warm tan paper color is visible. He considered the procedure of working from dark to light more typical of the French artists Maxime Lalanne and Auguste Allongé, who were famous in their day for their charcoal drawings.(12) Like most of his charcoal sketches, the MWPI drawing was made on a rough-toothed laid paper that shows wire marks where the charcoal was applied. This gives the dark tones of the drawing more variety and transparency.(13) And like other Hunt drawings, the composition was framed with charcoal lines on at least three edges to create what Hunt described as “distance” in the composition.(14)


1. Philip G. Hamerton, The Graphic Arts: A Treatise on the Varieties of Drawing, Painting, and Engraving (London: Seeley, Jackson, and Halliday, 1882), 118-19.

2. William Morris Hunt on Painting and Drawing, reprinted from Hunt’s Talks on Art, 1st and 2d ser. (1875, 1883; reprint, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1896 and 1898; reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1976), introduction by Charles Movalli, vi.

3. Henry C. Angell, Records of William M. Hunt (Boston: James R. Osgood and Co., 1881), 34.

4. Sally Webster to author, June 11, 1992. The subject of the drawing and the style of Hunt’s monogram in the lower left corner suggested to Webster its possible date.

5. Hunt on Painting and Drawing, 87.

6. Sally Webster, William Morris Hunt, 1824- I8 79 (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 72, 235. See also Angell, Hunt, 90.

7. Webster to author, June 11, 1992. The painting is cited in Webster, Hunt, 210 n. 5. There is no evidence why or when the MWPI sheet was first titled The Emigrants.

8. Webster, Hunt, 27-38.

9. Compare the MWPI drawing, for example, with Millet’s charcoal, Shepherdess Leaning against a Tree (c. 1857-60, Art Institute of Chicago). This is illustrated as fig. 94 in Hollister Sturges, Jules Breton and the French Rural Tradition (Omaha, Nebr.: Joslyn Art Museum, 1982), 124-25, 127.

10. Angell, Hunt, 8-13.

11. Ibid., Hunt, 7.

12. Ibid., 11-12. These two artists are discussed in Hamerton, The Graphic Arts, 119- 21, 127-28. For Courbet’s use of this procedure see Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, “Into the Modern Era: The Evolution of Realist and Naturalist Drawings,” in Gabriel P. Weisberg, The Realist Tradition: French Painting and Drawing, 1830- 1900 (Cleveland, Ohio: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1980), 27.

13. Hamerton, Graphic Arts, 120.

14. Hunt on Painting and Drawing, 13. The top edge of the MWPI sheet appears to have been cut down.


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