Hunt Slonem: the rich and famous line up for his paintings

Oil-on-canvas painting by Hunt Slonem, untitled (Parrots), 48in x 72in. Estimate: $10,000-$15,000, sold for $15,360 at a Hindman auction held Jan. 25, 2021. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – If you like vibrant and colorful Neo-Expressionist paintings of bunnies, birds and butterflies, then Hunt Slonem is the artist for you.

Slonem (born Hunt Slonim in 1951 – he changed the “i” to an “e” as a nod to numerology) was born in Maine but grew up in many places, being the son of a Navy officer who uprooted the family every couple of years to move to new, often exotic, places, including Nicaragua and Hawaii. These locales helped Slonem develop a strong affinity for nature – especially the aforementioned bunnies, tropical birds and butterflies – that permeated his work in later years. He once said, “My whole life can be summed up in one word – exotica.”

Both of Slonem’s parents dabbled in painting, but it was his grandfather, an amateur artist and a public schools superintendent, who encouraged the boy to paint. “I wanted to be a painter from the first grade onwards,” Slonem said. He graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree from Tulane University in New Orleans, a city that also influenced his work. But he settled in New York City, where he still paints today, in a 25,000-square-foot studio in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. The space also serves as an aviary, a place where from 30 to over 100 live birds of various species are kept. Slonem often paints with a bird or two on his shoulder.

Oil-on-canvas painting titled ‘Lady Gouldian,’ 1985, 48in x 48in, signed ‘Hunt Slonem’ on verso. Estimate: $4,000-$6,000, sold for $4,688 by Larsen Art Auction on Oct. 21, 2017. Image courtesy of Larsen Art Auction and LiveAuctioneers

In his early career, Slonem became well known for creating grisaille paintings of small birds in their cages. He often painted them wet-on-wet and grit off the surfaces to denote wire enclosures after the birds had been strategically placed. He became a master of the sgraffito technique, which involves scratching through a layer of still-wet paint to reveal what’s underneath. In 1995, he created his largest artwork to date: a 6-foot-by-86-foot mural for the Bryant Park Grill Restaurant in New York City, one that depicted hundreds of birds. In the early 1980s, Slonem began working on a new series of so-called “Rabbit paintings.” The idea came to him when he learned that the year of his birth, 1951, was the year of the rabbit in the Chinese zodiac calendar.

Butterflies were a natural complement to the birds and bunnies. All three became Slonem’s calling cards (along with portraits, especially of his favorite subject, Abraham Lincoln). Slonem is almost obsessive in his repetitive renderings of his subjects. It reflects his desire to explore issues of spatial complexity, compression and density, while constantly investigating post-cubist abstraction. It also makes a reference to Andy Warhol, whose repeated images of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s soup cans appealed to Slonem. “But,” he once observed, “I’m more interested in doing it in the sense of prayer, with repetition. It’s really a form of worship.”

Oil-on-canvas painting, signed, titled and dated on verso, ‘Hunt Slonem Butterflies 2003,’ 30in x 40in, an expressionist composition of blue, red, green and yellow butterflies among foliage executed with Slonem’s unmistakable sgraffito technique. Estimate: $8,000-$12,000, sold for $15,000 at a Bruneau & Co. auction May 4, 2019. Image courtesy of Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

So how popular an artist is Hunt Slonem? Well, since 1977, he’s had solo shows at many prestigious contemporary art galleries. Over 50 museums worldwide include Hunt Slonem paintings in their collections. He’s also a darling of the rich and famous. Collectors include Sharon Stone, Gina Gershon, Julianne Moore, Kris and Kylie Jenner, Mandy Moore, Jennifer Lopez, Kate Hudson and Brooke Shields, who said, “I’m a big fan of Hunt’s work. It’s whimsical without being too sweet.” His work skyrocketed when Architectural Digest did a feature story on Kris Kardashian’s home. She has a huge Hunt Slonem bunnies mural on one wall. His work was already getting very popular, but that magazine article woke everyone up.

But don’t take their word for it. Read what some auction house professionals who have handled paintings by Hunt Slonem in the past have to say about the artist:

Wade Terwilliger, co-owner of Palm Beach Modern Auctions in West Palm Beach, Fla.

“Hunt Slonem’s work can be summed up by his favorite subjects, the three B’s: butterflies, bunnies and birds. His paintings are charming and playful, with rich texture and color. The fantastical, dreamy result of his incised hash-mark technique is particularly suited to his subject matter, bringing light and life to his works. Hunt Slonem reminds us of the beauty and calmness of nature, especially in a busy world. Mr. Slonem’s works have maintained value over the years with noteworthy results in the past few years, especially with his rabbit paintings. With his works hanging in over 50 museums and noteworthy/famous collectors like Sharon Stone and Julianne Moore, his works are sure to be in demand.”

Wood panel bunny painting by Hunt Slonem, 9½in x 7½in (sight, less frame). Estimate: $2,000-$2,500, sold for $4,648 at Palm Beach Modern Auctions on Feb. 4, 2017. Image courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Travis Landry, auctioneer, director of pop culture at Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers in Cranston, R.I.:

“What make’s Hunt Slonem’s work so appealing is he embodies his aesthetic within his lifestyle. When you buy a Hunt Slonem work of art, you’re not just buying a painting but a piece of the artist. His vibrantly colored compositions of butterflies, rabbits and other creatures have become iconic imagery, similar to a brand. He will forever be a key figure of the Neoexpressionist movement. It’s also important to note the contemporary market of living artists is the largest it has been. The record results seen through day and evening sales are predominately from living artists when compared to the trends of 20 years ago. As a collector, Hunt Slonem is certainly a name to have in your art portfolio. That’s why I personally own two of them.”

Adam Lambert, owner of Crescent City Auction Gallery in New Orleans:

Hunt Slonem enjoyed what some would consider a quick rise to success, but I believe that speaks to the quality and appeal of his works. His paintings have built an amazing following and the clients that I know usually don’t just have one Slonem, they have three or four. I’ve personally watched his works steadily increase in value at auction, year over year. Here in New Orleans the most expensive Slonem ever to hit the auction block sold in 2019, going 344% over its estimate. As collectors strive to build noteworthy contemporary art collections, I think we will continue to see their prices increase; 14 or 15 years ago, you could have bought a Hunt Slonem original for $1,000. Today that painting would probably fetch over $10,000.”

Oil-on-wood-panel painting by Hunt Slonem titled ‘Metallic Bunnies,’ 2015, signed and dated on verso, in an antique and gesso frame, 27½in x 19½in. Estimate: $4,000-$8,000, sold for $8,125 at Crescent City Auction Gallery on Sept. 22, 2018. Image courtesy of Crescent City Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Kate Stamm, senior associate of business development in Hindman’s Palm Beach, Fla., office:

“Hunt Slonem’s work is so easily identified, it becomes a fixture of conversation right away. He has also been lucky enough to find a great group of steadfast collectors, that not only promote him socially, but by owning his pieces, have helped to create the trend of collecting Slonem works. He has great gallery representation, and his work with charities has exposed his name and imagery to an even wider audience. The market for Slonem today is definitely still growing at auction. His work has even been seen on a few reality shows recently, so his fan base has only expanded. Add that to the fact that he has been quite prolific, and is still constantly creating work, so there is never a shortage of works both on the secondary and primary markets.”

Oil on canvas painting by Hunt Slonem titled ‘Tropical Flowers 42in x 35½in. Estimate: $10,000-$15,000, sold for $9,500 at a Hindman auction held May 29, 2020. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers

Marney Robinson, director of paintings, prints & photography at Neal Auction in New Orleans:

“Hunt Slonem is one of those artists who has truly found his own unique aesthetic, and he approaches subjects that are near and dear to him in ways that fully translate to his viewers. His exuberant personality and larger-than-life charisma are on display in his colorful and expressive canvases, and that enthusiasm is contagious. Slonem’s appeal is universal and his lasting success is no surprise to those of us who have followed his career. Slonem’s secondary market has seen a steady rise over the last five years, in keeping with his growing popularity worldwide. We’ve experienced that rise up close and personal, due to the artist’s ties to Louisiana. We see his market as only continuing to grow and expand as new collectors discover this celebrated artist.”

Oil-on-canvas painting by Hunt Slonem titled ‘Butterflies,’ 1998, signed, titled and dated on verso, 40in x 30in, unframed. Estimate: $3,000-$5,000, sold for $8,000 at Neal Auction Co. on April 13, 2019. Image courtesy of Neal Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Taylor Curry, consignment director, modern & contemporary art, Heritage Auctions’ New York office 

“Collectors are quite simply captivated by Hunt Slonem’s fantastical creations. His work is full of passion and life. His paintings are colorful, expressionistic and instantly recognizable as his own. There’s this connection with nature and immediacy that you just don’t feel with other artists. I see the market for Hunt Slonem’s work continuing to grow. I’d say his market has easily doubled over the last decade, fueled by a few things, including social media. His work is so easily shareable. But the growth has been also fueled by his constant experimentation with new mediums, from handbags and fabrics to scarves and even a tabletop design for Tiffany. He continues to reach new audiences and collectors. People can’t get enough of his work.”

Oil-on-board painting by Hunt Slonem titled ‘Viceroys,’ 2007, 20in x 16in, signed, dated and titled on verso. Estimate: $2,000-$3,000, sold for $7,500 at Heritage Auctions on Jan. 14, 2021. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Polly Larsen, principal owner of Larsen Gallery in Scottsdale, Ariz.:

“Hunt Slonem’s work is appealing to collectors because his subject matter is so endearing, such as repetitive bunnies, exotic birds, butterflies duplicating and his wonderful thick applications of paint. The subject matter is easy to live with and works well in both contemporary and traditional collections. But he’s also a masterful business person, which most artists are not, and he’s turned his studio into a powerful marketing brand, comparable to Andy Warhol’s infamous Factory of the 1960s and ’70s. His continued success is a direct result of his marketing machine that has helped catapult his career as an artist. He is also an avid collector of many things, including chairs, hats and exotic birds, also similar to the collecting frenzy of Warhol.”

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