Anna Hyatt Huntington’s father, Alpheus Hyatt, was a professor of zoology and paleontology at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His specialty helps to explain the artist’s great ability at crafting small bronze animal sculptures and monumental equestrian statues. She received very little formal education, but eventually emerged as one of the most prestigious women artists of her era and one of the most accomplished sculptors.
Hyatt spent her adolescence in the Boston area, where her father provided her and her sister Harriet with a studio. Anna took instruction from Henry Hudson Kitson, who was primarily a portraitist. She later commented on her early years: “I was brought up with clay in my mouth.” Frustrated by the limited educational opportunities in her hometown, Hyatt went to New York where she studied with Hermon MacNeil at the Art Students League. She became a frequent visitor to the Bronx Zoo and closely observed lions, tigers, and elephants. She sold her early work through the metal and jewelry firms Shreve, Crump, and Low, plus Gorham and Company.
In 1907, Hyatt went abroad and opened a studio in Auvers-sur-Oise and in Paris, interrupted only by a stay in Italy and a short visit home. While in France, she embarked on her first major heroic study, an equestrian sculpture of Joan of Arc that was exhibited at the Paris Salon. It resulted in the first public monument in New York City by a woman, and the city’s first public statue of a real woman, as opposed to an allegorical one. Dedicated in 1915, Joan of Arc also reflects the pro-French feelings of Americans during World War I as well as the tide of international sentiment that led to the French maiden's canonization in 1920.
On the occasion of her forty-seventh birthday in 1923, Hyatt married Archer M. Huntington, the stepson of railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington. It was his fifty-third birthday. Archer was a noted author, philanthropist, and the founder of the Hispanic Society of America in New York where his wife’s imposing sculpture El Cid is displayed in the courtyard. Archer Huntington donated land for a permanent home for the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City, and in 1942 the National Academy of Design opened its headquarters in the Huntingtons’ former residence, a Beaux Arts mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York.
Like many wealthy Northerners, the couple began to visit coastal South Carolina in the 1920s. They acquired several Allston family plantations near Murrells Inlet, which beginning in 1932 were transformed into Brookgreen Gardens, a sculpture museum and wildlife preserve of more than nine thousand acres. The first outdoor sculpture park in the country, it was an ideal site to showcase Huntington’s sculpture and a comprehensive survey of American figurative sculpture.
While some view the style of her work as conservative, Huntington’s small “animalier” bronzes were very much in vogue in the early decades of the twentieth century. Her large-scale public commissions are impressive for her ability to comprehend outdoor settings and bronze casting. Huntington was also innovative in her early use of aluminum and a great patron of like-minded sculptors. Like her counterpart, Gloria Vanderbilt Whitney who was both sculptor and founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Hyatt sustained a far-reaching and creative career in sculpture, while providing for the display of American art.