“As a child of five, I embarked upon my artistic career by cutting out silhouettes of animals with a pair of broken-pointed scissors, for I love animals first, last, and always.” – Hunt Diederich, 1920
By Carole Deutsch
William Hunt Diederich’s (1884-1953) natural aptitude for art, which he exhibited as a young child, and deep love of animals combined to create depictions of animals that are alive with strength and movement. His art explodes with action and it is the action that is the most commanding aspect of his work, which is both graceful and electrifying at the same time.
His stylized sculptural art often reflected the one dimensional “broken-pointed scissors” silhouettes of his early years but was done in a blown-up, grown-up version in iron and other materials – and often appeared as decorative elements in functional day-to-day utilitarian objects. Fire screens, candlesticks, and ceramic items, as well as architectural elements that included gates, weather vanes, and fountains, and other objects that served as necessities, were also focal points of artistic interest.
The theme was invariably animals, with horses and greyhounds being his preferred subjects. However, all of his subjects exhibited explosive energy.
“I do a lot of small, decorative, and in a sense, utilitarian things, for I believe that art should begin at the bottom, not the top,” he said in 1920. “Art should be useful, should fulfill some specific end and purpose in our lives and homes. There can be as much aesthetic joy in making a candlestick or designing the leg of a table as in the treatment of the nude.”
This is not to suggest that Diederich did not engage in art for art’s sake in the form of figural sculptures and works on paper, and even continued to create his signature silhouettes in both paper and sheet metal. The impact of all his work was the captivating dynamic movement that was done with exacting precision and spontaneous freedom at the same time, and it is often attributed to his true love for, and deep understanding of, animal life.
William Hunt Diederich, known as Hunt, was born in Austria-Hungary. His early years were spent there on a great estate, where his father, Col. Ernest Diederich, trained horses for the Prussian army and died in a hunting accident in 1887. Hunt’s only recollections of his father were associated with dogs and horses, which became a central theme in his art. Hunt’s mother, Eleanor Hunt, was a member the wealthy and influential Hunt family of Boston that included William Richard Morris Hunt, a prominent figure in the history of American architecture, and William Morris Hunt, the celebrated mid-19th century painter, who was William Hunt Diederich’s grandfather.
At the age of 17, after attending school in Vevey and Lausanne in Switzerland, the young William Hunt was sent to live in Boston with his maternal grandparents, who naturally encouraged him to follow the family interest in the arts. He attended Boston Art School in 1903 and Milton Academy, but formal education held little fascination for young William, and he left without graduating to venture into the Wild West, seeking work as a cowboy.
In his own words: “Though I enjoyed to the full the exhilarating freedom of ranch life, I secretly longed to return to that which I loved most – my art.” To that end, Diederich enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1906, where he was well received, and in 1908 was awarded a prize for his work Bronco Buster.
He was later expelled for his use of improper language during a class attended by men and women. He was a man of bombastic characteristics, some pleasing, some off-putting, in both his professional and private life.
After leaving Pennsylvania, he embarked on an extended travel itinerary throughout Africa, Spain and Italy and eventually settled in France. It was in Paris that he began to study with Emmanuel Frémiet, the celebrated sculptor known for his outstanding depictions of animals.
Diederich set up a studio in Paris, and in 1910 and 1911, his work was exhibited in the Paris spring Salons. In 1913 his sculpture Playing Greyhounds received great acclaim at the Salon d’Automne. With the outbreak of World War I, he moved to New York City where he had his first one-man show at the Kingore Gallery.
Throughout the 1920s, his work was shown at several New York galleries, and in 1922, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Architectural League for design and craftsmanship. In 1934, Diederich was commissioned to create a series of signs and weather vanes for New York’s Central Park Zoo, which proved to be as popular with visitors as the actual zoo animals.
He left the United States to live in Germany, Mexico and Spain, but returned in 1941 as a result of the onset of World War II. Because of a sometimes offensive personality, a complicated personal life and unpopular political views Diederich fell out of favor and by the end of his life had produced little work.
However, the quality of his work has survived his tarnished reputation. The amalgamation of his early European aesthetics, the opulent Boston society finery, his rugged earthly experience in the American West, and his worldwide experiences created a fertile field for the genius of William Hunt Diederich to flourish on a breakaway platform that was unparalleled.
He was an imaginative artist who homogenized the formality and informality of his varied backgrounds to create art that was refined and balanced, yet wild and playful at the same time.
His work commanded the attention of leading galleries and world class museums, even in his day. He was highly regarded by leading sculptors and applauded by the higher echelon of international society. His exhibitions included the Pennsylvania Academy, Art Institute of Chicago, Salon d’Automne, Museum of Modern Art, the Salons of America and the Woodstock Art Association. His work was purchased by the Newark Museum, the Whitney Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Today his work is also seen in the Seattle Art Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, MoMA, and Cooper Hewitt, among others.