Richard Morris Hunt 
Biltmore House, Asheville, North Carolina
Oil on canvas 
254 x 139.7 cm (100 x 55 in.)
Inscribed: (Lower right:) John S. Sargent 1895

Richard Morris Hunt (1828-1895) was an architect who is widely credited as the one of the fathers of American architecture. He started the first studio in America to formally train young architects in New York and took a prominent role in founding the American Institute of Architects, of which he became president in 1888. Much of his work is eclectic and designs were borrowed from many European historic styles -- some derivative of 19th century French traditions of the Beaux-Arts,  having witnessed first hand the stunning transformation of Paris through city planning and beautification. When he returned to America he became part of the City Beautiful Movement.  

George W. Vanderbilt hired Sargent to paint the renown architect who was designing his  country chateau at Biltmore. When Sargent arrived, the building's facade was covered with scaffolding, the grounds were nothing but mud, and hundreds of construction workers were busy working everywhere. There was no background to paint. The whole place was a mess. But he was instructed to envision what it might be. 

For Sargent, the whole commission was a disaster. Even Hunt's wife was giving him problems. Insisting that her husband (who was in extremely poor heath) should be depicted, not as he looked, but as she wanted him to look. 

You can clearly see the painting wasn't working for Sargent. Hunt, as the central subject, is the least interesting figure of this painting. It seems Sargent felt more comfortable painting the Venetian well-head than his central figure. 

When Sargent first met Hunt is unknown. They were both alumni of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts though Hunt had studied there some 25 years prior to Sargent. It's possible that they ran into each other at Hunt's 10th Street Studio in New York were John's friend William Merritt Chase also had a studio. 

When John finally painted Hunt, he was at the height of his long career that spanned four decades. 

* * * 

Hunt became exposed to the idea of architecture in Europe when his mother took her family there to visit for a year -- they would stay for more than a decade. 

He entered Hector Martin Lefuel's atelier (a distinguished Parisian architect and teacher during a significant period of the city's  development) and formally studied between (1843-54). He was the first native American to study architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Before he left, he won the school’s highest prize -- the Grand Prix de Rome. 

With such an award, government commissions would be easy to come by. In 1854 he was appointed inspector of works on the buildings connecting the Tuileries with the Louvre. Working under Lefuel, he designed the Pavillion de la Biblioteque ("Library Pavilion"), opposite the Palais Royal.  

Encouraged to stay in Paris for a promising career, he declined. When his mother wrote that possibly he should reconsider -- that  people were telling her that the U.S. wasn't ready for the Fine Arts, Hunt replied: if that is what they think then "there was no place in the world where they are more needed, or where they should be more encouraged.” He returned to New York undaunted in 1855 and worked under T. U. Walter on the extensions of the Capitol at Washington, D.C.  

On his own he designed the Lenox library (since torn down). The critic Montgomery Schuyler at the time pronounced the new library “the most monumental public building in New York.” 

He designed one of the first buildings with an elevator -- the Tribune building in New York (1873 ). Designed the Theological library, and Marquand chapel at Princeton; the Devinity college and the Scroll and Key building at Yale (1869) which were encrusted with trefoils, fleurs-de-lis, and flying buttresses looking like High Victorian Gothic; the first building for the Fogg Museum of Art, Cambridge, Mass;  and was chosen, appropriately, for the Yorktown monument, VA. which honored the French-American victory over the British in the American Revolution. 

He was an incredibly hard worker and pushed himself regardless of persistent poor health. One of the bookplates in his library had the Latin inscription: “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis Est” -- Art is long, life is brief.  

His greatest achievement was the Administration building at Chicago's World's Columbian exposition (1893). The building stood (for the men of the City Beautiful Movement) as the symbolic capital of the White City, and Hunt received the gold medal from the Institute of British Architects. Today, his most seen works are probably the Pedestal for the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor (dedicated 1886), and the front facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1890-02).  

David Garrard Lowe, in his article in the City Journal called Hunt "the man who gilded the Gilded Age." Among Hunt's noteworthy buildings were his opulent residences of the the new moneyed barons on 5th Avenue in New York City: Henry G Marquand (c. 1875), W. K Vanderbilt (begun 1877), J.J. Astor (1893); several of the large so called "summer cottages" at Newport R.I., including William K. Vanderbilt's "Marble House" (1888); his brother's home "The Breakers" (1893); and of course George W. Vanderbilt's country chateau at Biltmore (1889-95) where Sargent had painted him. 

Hunt establish a school of learning in his studio modeled after the ateliers of Paris but he went further demanding rigorous  instruction modeled on the École des Beaux-Arts -- combining both. In his studio he had a library of more than 5,000 volumes, thousands of photographs of buildings, and its extensive collection of plaster casts of design details. With William Merritt Chase teaching in the same building, the 10th street studio quickly became New York's version of a little Paris, and bright young students came flocking. 

Sargent clearly admired Hunt though I'm not sure they ever were more than just acquaintances. There really wasn't much time since Hunt died later that same year Sargent painted him.  

In the circles of their lives, they shared many mutual friends. Among them were Henry Marquand and Charles McKim both pallbearers at Hunt's funeral at Trinity Church, Newport, RI. It was McKim that had publicly recognized the W. K Vanderbilt Fifth Avenue château  (1877-1881) as the first complete expression of the Beaux-Arts style in America.  Hunt was buried in Newport’s Island Cemetery and on his gravestone is the line from another of his bookplates: “Laborare Est Orare” -- Labor is prayer.  

It seemed to fit.  

It also seemed to fit Sargent, for it would be this exact Latin phrase that John would request and is inscribed on his own gravestone. 


Formerly in the collection of Vanderbilt, George, until 1914.
Cecil, Cornelia Amherst, until 1978.

Ormond, Richard and Elaine Kilmurray, "John Singer Sargent: complete paintings; volume 2, Portraits of the 1890s," New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002, no. 319.
McKibbin, David, "Sargent's Boston," Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 1956.
Antiques (Apr. 1980): pg. 865.

Ormond, Richard and Elaine Kilmurray, "John Singer Sargent: complete paintings; volume 2, Portraits of the 1890s," New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002, pg. 102.
Antiques (Apr. 1980): pg. 865.
SIRIS IAP 81690237


George W. Vanderbilt's Country Chateau at Biltmore N.C. (1889-95) 
Brian Hawley as  
Richard Morris Hunt 
Photo of a Venetian well-head 


Tenth Street Studio Building, 15 West 10th Street in Greenwich 
Village, New York City  (opened in 1858 and demolished 
in 1956 -- we Americans have no shame) 
The Tribune Building (1873) 
Yorktown Memorial, Yorktown VA dedicated 1880 
Administration Building at World's Columbian Exposition (1893) 
Metropolitan Museum of Art 
The base of Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty dedicated October 28, 1886 
William K. Vanderbilt's "Marble House"  
Summer home in Newport R.I (1888) 

Cornelius Vanderbilt II's "The Breakers" Newport R.I (1893) 

W. K Vanderbilt Fifth Avenue château (1877-1881) 

U.S. Naval Observatory at Washington, D.C. (1893) 


  Created 11/28/2000