In 1807 Hunt began to exhibit at the Royal Academy, sending three `views' near Hounslow, Reading, and Leatherhead, and the year after, on the advice of William Mulready [q. v.], he entered the schools of the Academy. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1807 to 1811, when he returned from Varley's house, 15 Broad Street, Golden Square, to his father's in Old Belton Street, and again from 1822, when his address was 36 Brownlow Street, Drury Lane, to 1825, when he removed to 6 Marchmont Street, Brunswick Square. Altogether he exhibited fourteen works at the Academy. They were painted in oil colours, and were all landscapes and interiors, with the exception of `Selling Fish' (1808), and perhaps one or more of the subjects described as `sketches.' In 1814, 1815, and 1819 he exhibited ten works (landscapes and two portraits) at the (now Royal) Society of Painters in Water-colours, who for a few years (1813-21), on account of a secession of some of their members, admitted oil pictures to swell their exhibitions. He also exhibited six works at the British Institution and one at Suffolk Street before 1829. In 1824 Hunt was elected an associate exhibitor of the Water-colour Society, and from this time he devoted himself almost exclusively to painting in water-colour. In 1826 he was elected a full member.
His rapid promotion in the society proves that he had now made his mark. The first drawing which is said to have shown his peculiar gifts in patient and faithful rendering of subtle gradations of light and colour was of a greengrocer's stall lit by a paper lantern. Still life, flowers, fruit, vegetables, game, and poultry soon began to predominate in his drawings over figures and landscapes. Between 1824 and 1831 he exhibited 153 drawings, of which eight were candlelight scenes, and sixty were figures of fisherfolk at Hastings. Some of his best landscapes were also painted at Hastings, which he visited regularly for thirty years, taking up his residence in a small house in the old town overlooking the beach. In 1842 his London address changed from Marchmont Street to 55 Burton Crescent, and in 1845 to 62 Stanhope Street, Hampstead Road, where he died, but from 1851 he had a country residence also, Parkgate, Bromley, near Basingstoke, Hampshire, where he spent many months each year in later life.
During Hunt's most productive period (1831-51) he exhibited on an average twenty-five pictures a year. After 1851 the average dropped to eleven, but he then commanded higher prices. In 1858 he wrote: `I have now thirty-five guineas for the same size that I used to have twenty-five, perhaps somewhat more finished.'
Hunt was a man of little culture or intellectual power outside his art. He was debarred by his infirmity from active exercise, and in later years his health prevented him from drawing in the open air. Many, if not most, of his landscapes were drawn from windows. To these causes is to be ascribed not only the limited range of his subjects, but also the perfection to which he attained in rendering them. No one, perhaps, has ever realised so fully the beauty of common objects seen in sunlight at a short distance, but no one has ever employed so many years in pursuit of this almost solitary aim. His subjects were not great. The interiors were nearly always rustic, barns, cottages, smithies, and the like, the figures (except the fishermen) rustic also, with now and then a negro or negress `Massa Sambo,' `Jim Crow,' or `Miss Jemima.' He had a strong vein of humour, and many of his best-known drawings (made popular by chromo-lithographs) were from a boy-model (John Swain, 1826-1883) whom he found at Hastings and brought up to London with him. This boy was the original of nearly all the drawings of the type of `Too Hot,' `The Card-players,' `The Young Shaver,' 'The Flyfisher ' (a boy catching a bluebottle), and the pair of drawings of a boy with a huge pie, exhibited under the titles of `The Commencement' and `The Conclusion,' but better known as `The Attack' and `The Defeat,' by which names the reproductions were called. `Who,' wrote Thackeray, `does not recollect "Before and After the Mutton Pie," the two pictures of that wondrous boy? `To Mr. Ruskin and others some of these humorous drawings appeared vulgar, but Thackeray represented the opinion of many good judges when he called them `grand, good-humoured pictures,' and declared that `Hogarth never painted anything better than these figures taken singly.'
Sometimes Hunt would paint his rustics in all seriousness, revealing the native sweetness of a young peasant, as in 'The Shy Sitter,' or the patriarchal grandeur of an old man, as in `The Blessing;' but he failed when he attempted to seize the subtler graces of a beautiful gentlewoman. He acknowledged this deficiency. In his later years, when the demand for his pictures of fruit and flowers was so great that he had no time to devote to figures, he undertook a series of studies of small objects for Mr. Ruskin, to be presented to country schools of art as models. Of these he executed a few of great beauty, including 'Study in Gold' (a smoked pilchard) and 'Study in Rose-Grey' (a mushroom)(1860); but Mr. Ruskin kindly released the old artist