Painter Robert Douglas Hunter’s Serene Observations of New England Life

Feb 1, 2016 5:30PM

The late painter Robert Douglas Hunter was widely admired for his ability to translate everyday life into highly realistic paintings. But the artist regarded his own talents with humility. “Painting is easy,” Hunter said to the Boston Globe in 1980. “It’s seeing that is hard.”

What the artist saw, and the “easy” paintings he made—including bucolic landscapes bathed in a late afternoon glow, like The Stop River, as well as classic tabletop still-lifes, like Arrangement with a Brass Pitcher—are shown by J. Todd Galleries in Wellesley, a fitting locale. Hunter, who was born in Dorchester in 1928 and died in Boston in 2014 at the age of 86, was a true Massachusetts painter. 

In the 1950s, Hunter studied under the great American muralist and portrait painter R.H. Ives Gammell, a key proponent of The Boston School. That group of painters, of which Hunter himself was later considered an important member, shared Gammell’s admiration for the great masters of Impressionist painting. Their favorite subjects typically included genteel human figures, elegant interiors, and peaceful landscapes. Hunter himself, though, was less interested in portraiture: he was a master of the still life. 

Water vessels, jugs, bowls, and plates are the central focus of many of Hunter’s finest paintings. Some are rustic objects, vestiges of another era—see Arrangement with an 18th Century Iron Kettle or Arrangement with an Overturned Brass Bucket—and others feature more exotic or delicate pieces, like White Stoneware with a Ming Vase or Still Life with a Fan.
A few of these oil paintings have a satisfying personal feel: you can almost imagine Hunter walking along the rocky coast, picking up the smooth pebbles placed on the mantel or tabletop of Arrangement with Beach Stones. The same is true of Hunter’s landscapes. Looking at September Pasture or From the Inn at Castle Hill, Ipswich, the viewer can’t help but feel that we’re seeing one of the artist’s favorite views, perhaps even peering through Hunter’s own window at the inn.

In both the still lifes and landscapes, there’s a masterful rendering of light and shadow—a hallmark of Hunter’s oeuvre. Painting was, as the artist said in a 1991 interview, “a compulsion, a reflection of the need for order and harmony.” His work, Hunter added, was “the only thing in my life I had control of.” His dreamy landscapes serve as ongoing invitations into the scenes he found beautiful; his detailed still lifes are practically meditations on moments gone by. Both serve as rich testaments to Hunter’s lifelong occupation as a painter, and as an astute observer of the world around him.

Bridget Gleeson

Discover more artists at J. Todd Gallerie.