Painter and occasional sculptor. Important also as a teacher and tastemaker, he created landscapes, genre scenes, portraits, and ideal subjects. Reflecting his immersion in progressive French painting, his broadly conceived, painterly works helped to redirect American painting from the tightly detailed realism of mid-century toward more personal and more aesthetically oriented approaches favored later. A great admirer of his friend Jean-Francois Millet, Hunt triggered the popularity of Barbizon painting among American collectors, particularly in New England. His brother, Richard Morris Hunt, ranked among preeminent American architects of the late nineteenth century. Born in Brattleboro, Vermont, as a youngster he lived in Washington, D.C., and New Haven, Connecticut, before moving in 1838 to Cambridge, Massachusetts. There he entered Harvard College in 1840. At the same time, initially drawn to sculpture, in Boston he studied with Scots-born, self-taught portraitist John Crookshanks King (1806–82). In 1843 he departed with his family for Paris, but they soon resettled in Rome, where Hunt worked for about six months under Henry Kirke Brown. In 1845 he enrolled at the art academy in Düsseldorf; dissatisfied with its rigid pedagogy, he left after nine months. He went to Paris still intending to become a sculptor, but instead in 1847 entered Thomas Couture's painting studio, where he remained for five years. Drawn to the feeling for humanity expressed in Millet's work, in 1853 he moved to Barbizon, where he pictured dignified but sweetly appealing rustics, usually shown outdoors in harmony with landscape. Before he returned to Boston in 1855, Hunt bought The Sower (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1850), Millet's iconic image of a heroically conceived peasant striding across a field. An adventurous purchase, it was the first significant painting by a Barbizon artist to be acquired by an American. After a year in Brattleboro, Hunt moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where he offered art instruction in his studio, while also establishing himself professionally. His majestic rendering of Judge Lemuel Shaw (Essex County Bar Association, Salem, Massachusetts, 1859) exemplifies the strengths of his French training in its easy naturalism, bold contours, painterly finesse, and balance between description and abstract pattern. With its stylistic challenge to the literalism of contemporary American portrait practice, the Shaw likeness positioned Hunt as New England's leading portrait painter.
In 1862 he moved to Boston, where he soon came to be regarded as a cultural leader. Four years later he departed on his only repeat visit to Europe. For two years he lived in Paris and Rome while also traveling widely. On his return to Boston, in 1868 he established an art school, where for seven years he provided up-to-date training, notably open to women. Hunt's unsystematic but invigorating Talks on Art (1875; revised and enlarged edition 1883), compiled by a friend and student, the painter Helen Mary Knowlton (1832–1918), recapitulates his innovative teaching methods, which had their foundation in Couture's studio practice. In 1872 a fire that ravaged Boston's center destroyed his studio and many items from his collection of contemporary French work. Burdened also by difficulties in his personal life around the same time, he took refuge in painting landscapes. Stimulated by trips to Florida, Cuba, and Mexico, as well as the Massachusetts countryside and shore, he produced freely painted, fresh, and intimate responses. Despite this introspective turn, in 1878 he accepted a major civic commission, the most prestigious recognition of his career, comprising two enormous allegorical murals for the ornate New York state capitol just being completed in Albany. The Discoverer depicted Columbus with allegorical figures, while the more imaginative and powerful Flight of Night portrayed Anahita, the Persian goddess of the night. Reprising a theme that had interested him for years, he presented the allegorical figure in a chariot drawn by horses that seem to plunge through the skies. Some months after the paintings' debut in January 1879, he died on a visit to Appledore Island, in the Isles of Shoals off the coast near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. His drowning may have been a suicide brought on by the strain of completing his first murals, well received though they were, while already haunted by other cares.