William McDougal Hart was a Scottish-born American landscape, cattle painter and Hudson River School artist. His younger brother, James McDougal Hart, was also a Hudson River School artist and the two painted similar subjects. He studied under Jules-Joseph Lefebvre.
Hart was born in Paisley, Scotland and moved to America in early youth with his family. He apprenticed a carriage painter in Albany, New York and his first artistic experience was in decorating the panels of coaches with landscapes murals. He also spent time as a portrait painter. He returned to Scotland in the early to mid-1840s where he formally studied art for three years.
By the time he returned to America, Hart decided to focus on landscape painting. He exhibited his first work at the National Academy of Design in 1848, became a full member in 1858 and continued to show his paintings there regularly through the mid 1870s. He also exhibited at the Brooklyn Art Association and at major exhibitions around the country.
Like most of the major American landscape artists of the time, Hart settled in New York City where he opened a studio in the Tenth Street Studio building in 1858. His mature landscape style embraced the mannerism of the late Hudson River School by emphasizing light and atmosphere. He became particularly adept at depicting angled sunlight and foreground shadow.
As strong as Hart’s technical abilities were, he is also known for his prolific and occasionally formulaic paintings of cattle. Cows were a popular motif in Hudson River School art and nearly every artist included them in at least some of their landscapes as diminutive symbols of man’s harmonious relationship with nature. Some artists, including William and James Hart along with Thomas Bigelow Craig, made a specialty of cow portraits. These paintings, which were very popular with late 19th century American collectors, typically featured several cattle grazing or watering in the foreground or middle-ground with the landscape playing a supporting role as a bucolic backdrop.
The Albany Institute of History & Art has in its collection over 400 sketches, watercolors and sketch books which were retained from the artist’s studio after his death, by the family of the subsequent donor. Since each piece is signed, dated and annoted with the location of its subject, many previously unsigned and unattributed paintings are now being associated with the artist.
Hart passed away at Mount Vernon, New York in1894.