William M. Hart, the brother of the artist James McDougal Hart (1828‑1901), was born in Kilmarnock, Scotland, and brought to Albany, New York, in 1831. He was a self‑taught artist who, like his brother, first worked as an apprentice to a decorative painter, executing signs and side panels for carriages. At the age of eighteen, however, he turned to portrait painting. In search of portrait commissions, Hart traveled widely in the United States, working in Troy, New York, Richmond, Virginia, and Michigan, ultimately returning to Albany, where he was supported by a local patron, Dr. Ormsby. In Albany Hart took students into his studio, including Homer Dodge Martin (1836-1897) and Lemuel Wiles (1826-1905) in 1848.
Hart returned to his native Scotland for three years, but in 1854 he set up a studio in New York. By that time he had begun to specialize in landscapes with cattle (and occasionally cow portraits), and today he is considered one of the leading painters of the Hudson River School. Like his brother James, William was very successful "in blending the 'real' with the 'ideal' in such a way as to please the critics and the buyers" (Mark Sullivan, James M. and William Hart: American Landscape Painters [Philadelphia: John F. Warren, 1983], p. 5). His paintings were in demand, and some of his landscapes were engraved and published in journals and gift books such as Picturesque America. Hart eventually moved to Brooklyn and finally settled in Mount Vernon, New York, where he spent the last years of his life. He was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1858, and was a founding member of the Brooklyn Academy of Design, serving as its first president in 1865. He was also one of the founders of the American Water Color Society and its president for three years. Hart exhibited in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Boston. His paintings are in major American museums; Scene at Napanock and Seashore Morning, for example, are in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
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