Legacy is without a doubt one of the constant thought worms throughout history, and we can all agree that it is not distributed in equal measure to the deceased. While it is perhaps unfair to say that the issue of legacy is nearer and dearer to artists, they do spend much of their time building a body of works to be left behind after their passing and the threat of disappearing into obscurity likely exists as a looming motivation of sorts for many painters. No journals or letters remain to confirm that this was an anxiety of the adoptive Southern Californian painter Thomas L. Hunt (1882-1938), but one can imagine he might feel some displeasure at having become a less familiar name over the course of the past three-quarters of a century. The good news is that in October the Laguna Art Museum (LAM) plans on opening the second ever solo exhibition of Thomas Hunt’s paintings—including this post’s featured painting on loan from the Bowers.
Thomas Lorraine Hunt was born in the largest London west of the Atlantic, located in the Canadian province of Ontario. Middle child to Thomas Powell Hunt (1854 - 1932)—who was himself a painter of local renown—and Phoebe Ann Hogarth Hunt, Thomas Hunt followed a not-so-brief education in fine art under Hugh H. Breckenridge at the Pennsylvania Academy and other European masters before deciding that there was real money to be made in real estate and construction. In 1910 Hunt married Blanche Levina Smith in London, Canada. After some amount of time, real estate speculation brought the couple to the United States and with it came a change in Hunt. The agent had likely painted as a hobbyist throughout his life, but in the early years of the 1920s he began submitting his paintings to exhibitions. In 1923 he won first prize at the California State Fair in Sacramento and less than a year later Thomas and Blanche Hunt moved to Southern California to pursue real estate development in Hollywood and San Bernardino.
The pair had a few homes in Southern California, but their nexus was Laguna Beach. With his flame for painting relit, Hunt rapidly became involved with the Laguna Beach artist colony and between 1927 and a 1934 return to the East Coast, Thomas Hunt served on and off as a Director for the Laguna Beach Art Association (LBAA). He was one of the major proponents in the founding of the Laguna Beach Museum of Art, a precursor to the LAM. Hunt also juried and submitted works to the LBAA’s annual August exhibitions and continued to submit to other exhibitions throughout the United States.
Boats at Quorum
Most of the paintings Hunt submitted to exhibitions, and more generally painted, are seascapes. Whether dotted with or entirely devoid of boats, the ocean always presented a unique challenge to painters: how to statically capture such a dynamic and immense creature? This perhaps explains why so many Californian painters who began painting the sea compulsively returned time and time again. Hunt’s ocean is dripping with emotion. This untitled Hunt likely depicts a quiet harbor near to Gloucester, Massachusetts rather than his Californian home. Chambray New England waters and the tenor of a placid wharf are all impressed in a few confident brushstrokes. Water and brightly painted hulls both melt together and are held in relative isolation to one another creating a complex, simultaneously crowded and lonely spaces all reflected in duplicate across the sea’s surface.
In the spring of 1938 Thomas Hunt passed away following complications from an ulcer surgery. Just 58 years old at the time, his father had died only six years prior. During his lifetime the Los Angeles Times’ first art critic deemed Hunt to be perhaps the greatest landscape painter in Southern California. In hindsight academics have called Thomas Hunt’s modernist style ahead of its time, a forerunner to post-war expressionism. What can be said of his legacy, though, now the waves of time seem to have struck almost all remembrance of the man? The Laguna Art Museum’s upcoming exhibition Thomas Hunt: California Modernist aims to keep the artist’s legacy alive, letting his works speak once more to his incredible talents.
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