Finding Peter Hunt
Book Uses Fiction To Explore The Real Story Behind
Renowned Provincetown Folk Artist
by Tim Wood
The late Provincetown artist Peter Hunt was ahead of his time, both in his anticipation of the popularity of folk art and his self-invented celebrity. While the “peasant” designs he created briefly gripped the public imagination and were a triumph of mid-20th century marketing, Hunt’s true skills were in the myth-making abilities that gained him entree into the upper social circles of both New York and Provincetown.
He was, according to author Lynn Van Dine, “a terrible, and wonderful, liar.”
Van Dine spent seven years piecing together the mystery of Peter Hunt’s life, a story she tells in a fictionalized biography, “The Search for Peter Hunt,” scheduled for publication this month by the Local History Company. It’s fitting, she says, that the life of a man who constantly reinvented himself and his history be couched in fiction.
“He’d be furious,” says Van Dine, who lives in Michigan but spends summers at her husband’s family home in Chatham.
She uses a framing device in the book to explore what she imagines would be Hunt’s reaction, casting the artist, who died in 1967, as a ghost trying to discourage the author from writing his biography.
Despite its fictional trappings, “The Search for Peter Hunt” is meticulously researched and steeped in the actual people and events that shaped Hunt’s life and career.
Much of the information was uncovered by Van Dine in a quest that paralleled a struggle in her own life, and began when she came to Chatham to get married.
In the upstairs room of her in-laws’ 200-year-old Shore Road home where she prepared for the wedding were several brightly painted pieces of furniture and accessories, the patterns an eclectic mix of primitive hearts, flowers and figures such as angels, animals and children. They were unlike anything she’s seen, and she later discovered from her mother-in-law that they were created by Peter Hunt when he stayed in a guesthouse on the property for several weeks in the 1930s. Hunt had decorated a complete room in the main house, painting everything from furniture to walls in a primitive peasant style reminiscent of Pennsylvania Dutch and European village designs. Much of the furniture remains, although the walls were painted over long ago.
Intrigued, Van Dine sought out books about Hunt. Local bookseller Eric Linder found her three books the artist had authored, two volumes on decorating furniture and a cookbook. A newspaper reporter and editor who had worked for the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, Van Dine was at the time afflicted with Chronicle Fatigue Syndrome, which sapped her energy and made it nearly impossible to do the most simple tasks. “I can’t stand not doing anything,” she says, but when her energy levels allowed, she tried her hand at Hunt’s designs. She wasn’t entirely successful. “They’re harder than they look,” she says. “I’m still horrible at it.”
But she was curious that no one had written a book about Hunt, especially after she began delving into his background. Her reporter’s instincts were further inflamed by the stories her mother-in-law, Barbara Weller, told of hosting Peter Hunt, how he charmed the area’s well-to-do summer residents with his flamboyance and wit. Van Dine traveled to Provincetown to find what was left of Peasant Village, the alley off Commercial Street where Hunt lived, created and sold his designs. She heard the stories about how Hunt arrived in Provincetown in the 1920s when a yacht he shared with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald sought refuge from a storm. Strolling down Commercial Street in a black cape and black broad-rimmed hat, two afghan hounds on the end of a leash and a red-headed dwarf by his side, he was said to have proclaimed, “This is a wonderful place. I must stay here.”
Then she met one of Hunt’s former apprentices, Impressionist painter Nancy Whorf Kelly, and found out everything she’d learned about Peter Hunt was a lie.
“She just totally broke open that element of him,” Van Dine recalls. “That made it like a treasure hunt for me.”
Kelly told Van Dine that after Hunt died in a small cottage behind Peacock Alley, which he’d opened in Orleans in 1960, boxes of documents had been given to the Smithsonian Institution’s archives of American art by the artist’s sister. A trip to Washington, D.C., revealed the treasure she was seeking, in the form of scrapbooks dating back to 1910, telegrams, Christmas cards, drawings and a plethora of Hunt material.
“Now I’m caught, I’m hooked,” Van Dine says of her reaction to the discovery. Further connections came out of the blue: a comment by her brother that Hunt seemed a lot like the character Templeton in Sommerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge” set her to comparing a time line of the lives of the artist and the author, finding intersections of events and people that defied coincidence. “All of a sudden,” Van Dine says, “a lot became clearer.”
Peter Hunt was not, as he liked to tell people, descendant from Russian aristocracy, nor was there a shred of truth in the story of his arrival in Provincetown. Peter Hunt was actually Frederick Schnitzer, the son of German immigrants, the product of a New Jersey tenement upbringing who served in the ambulance corps during World War I, and was one of the faces in the background of the Greenwich Village art scene in the 1920s.
“I would turn around a find one detail that led deeper into it,” Van Dine says, recalling how she searched Mormon genealogical records and the rolls of immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island to trace Hunt’s parents, and tracked down his home address to assure herself her really did grow up in a tenement. That minutia, she says, “really helped me develop his character.”
So did interviews with people like Kelly, expressionist artist Jack Amoroso, and other protegees of Hunt, such as Provincetown gallery owner Berta Walker, who, as a young apprentice, had suggested Hunt add a line of Christmas items to his Peasant Village stocks.
“All these voices of Peter came ringing through, from people who knew him. I had to rely on those voices to know what his voice sounded like,” says Van Dine. She followed up leads as she was able, the chase providing an incentive as she continued to battle CFS
Some of the characters in the book are composites, but most are people who knew and worked with Hunt, who first came to Provincetown in the 1920s at the urging of his Greenwich Village friends, including Mary Heaton Vorse and Eugene O’Neill. Unsuccessful in his attempts to win acceptance as a fine art painter, despite the patronage of some wealthy New Yorkers, Hunt eventually opened an antique store in Provincetown. One winter he decided to stay on the Cape, and with the antique store not doing well, he took to decorating the old pieces of furniture he found in dumps and thrift stores with the peasant-style designs he’d seen in Europe during the war.
“They were snapped up by tourists” the following summer, Van Dine says. Although she says the early Hunt pieces are “dreadful” with more grays and dark backgrounds than his later brightly colored pieces he soon found the formula that was to bring him success: the simple, shapes and designs with heavy brush strokes and primitive figures. Wealthy Cape summer residents snatched the pieces up as well, finding they fit perfect in their quaint Cape cottages. Hunt himself soon became a symbol of status among the summer elite; the fact that he was gay, although not outrageously so, made him a safe and unusual summer companion for the well-to-do women.
“They all wore Peter Hunt like a bauble, a charm on their charm bracelets,” Van Dine quotes her mother-in-law as saying.
Hunt’s designs soon crossed the bridge, thanks to his New York connections, socialite Helena Rubenstein among them. Major department stores such as Macy’s, Gimbel’s and Bloomingdale’s sold Peter Hunt furniture and promoted the artist’s creations in full page newspaper ads. During World War II, Hunt capitalized on the call to conserve resources by urging people to recycle old furniture, backed by a line of paints from DuPont, which sent the artists on speaking tours across the country. He was featured in spreads in Life, House Beautiful and Mademoiselle magazines, and DuPont published “Transformagic: How to Transform Old Furniture,” a booklets by Hunt on furniture redecorating, in 1942.
“That was the basis of his art books,” says Van Dine. “The idea was to make old things new again, to take any little thing and make it magical.”
By this time, Hunt had transformed his Provincetown antique store into Peasant Village, with several shops and workshops where a dozen apprentices turned out furniture and accessories based on his peasant designs. The furniture was often cheap and poorly made, Van Dine says, but it was the colorful and playful designs that people sought. They appeared to be based on French, Swedish and Romania folk designs, with bright primary colors similar to Pennsylvania Dutch pieces. Symbols and shapes alternated with whimsical figures such as angels and lions. Some pieces were customized by their function; for instance, a child’s dresser might show angels on the drawers holding socks or underpants to indicate what went where, Van Dine said.
After the war, styles changed, but Hunt changed as well, adapting his designs to the mass market that was beginning to emerge. His designs were mass-produced on decals and dish towels by a number of companies, and he promoted his work to the hobby market through his books and classes, which he gave across the country.
“He had a generosity of spirit,” says Van Dine. “He wanted to not only show people how to make his designs, but to make them their own.”
Hunt made a lot of money, Van Dine says, but he also spent it freely as it came in. In 1959, he sold Peasant Village, reportedly after a customer complained about the $2.50 price of a Christmas ornament, and bought the Peacock Alley property on Route 28 in Orleans. He invited other artisans to open shops, and sold his own furniture designs still being produced by people like Kelly and continued to paint, even experimenting with his own form of psychedelic art. “He knew what his bread and butter was,” notes Van Dine, “but at the same time, he was doing wonderful experiments.” At the age of 71, Hunt died in his sleep in the cottage he lives in at the back of Peacock Alley.
Over the years, Hunt’s work faded from view. Van Dine found some evidence of Peasant Village (now Kiley Court) in Provincetown a faded painting on an old wooden door but although designs inspired by his peasant style can still be found on some products, much has disappeared.
“The tragedy is a lot of people didn’t realize what it would become,” she says. “So they’d paint over walls or furniture, or get rid of it as junk.” Hunt’s work is now highly collectible, and his painted furniture sells for thousands of dollars.
Van Dine was a bit surprised to find herself writing a book on Hunt. She’d done articles based on her research for Yankee and other publications, and through family connections knew about the Local History Company. “They liked the idea, even though they specialize in nonfiction. They took a chance and all of a sudden I was writing a book.”
Her book succeeds in capturing both Hunt’s joie de vivre and his frustration at not being taken seriously as an artist. Some of that came out in resentment of his father, Pa Hunt. Peter Hunt had moved his parents to Provincetown and the paintings his unschooled father did to pass the time caught the eye of a gallery owner. Pa Hunt was hailed as a major primitive artist and was exhibited alongside Grandma Moses. “Peter struggled, while his father gained notoriety,” Van Dine says. “Even what he didn’t say about his father 20 years later said a lot.” However, after seeing Hunt’s portfolio among the papers at the Smithsonian, she concludes that he had “a wonderful talent” that was superseded by success of his populist peasant work.
Still, his life came to a somewhat ignominious end. Like the old, worn out furniture his designs masked, he lived a life with a bright veneer but little depth. He died alone in his small cottage behind Peacock Alley, and was not found for several days. When his estate was auctioned off, its total value came to about $40,000, according to Van Dine.
“Peter would have hated the way he died, he would have hated the way he was found, and would have hated that I was finding all this out,” says Van Dine. But he would have loved the attention the book is likely to garner, and the fact that people now see his work as treasures to be preserved and cherished.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Peter Hunt’s peasant designs were ubiquitous, gracing dozens of products and touted as a way to bring new life to dreary old pieces of furniture. Today his furniture goes for top dollar in high-end galleries, and items with his designs often spark fierce bidding wars on eBay. But Hunt’s designs remain simple in concept and can be duplicated by those willing to make the effort; two how-to books he left behind, “Peter Hunt’s Workbook,” published in 1945, and “Peter Hunt’s How-to-do-it Book,” from 1952, provide step-by-step instructions in doing so. While both are out of print, they are still be found in used book stores or through the Internet. In 1975, Priscilla Hauser republished the first book as “Priscilla Hauser Presents the Peter Hunt Workbook,” including her own shortcuts and tips.
“Peter Hunt’s Cape Cod Cookbook” is also fairly common. While he was said to be a poor cook, the book includes a variety of Cape recipes and is illustrated by the artist. He also illustrated a children’s book by Betty Cavanna called “Paintbox Summer.”
Peter Hunt pieces can be found at the Provincetown Heritage Museum and Pilgrim Monument and the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.
Lynn Van Dine, author of the forthcoming “Search for Peter Hunt,” has assembled a comprehensive Web site about Hunt and his art, peasantvillage.com.
Tim Wood is the Editor of The Cape Cod Chronicle.