Golden Age Illustrator
He was a whale of a man, a veritable pioneer hulk of a man, with a head reminding you of a cross between an Indian chief and a Viking. He looked as though he could easily bite a spike in two with one crunch of his broad jaws.
—Grant Reynard, a fellow pioneer painter from Nebraska, about Harvey Dunn1
Harvey Dunn (1884–1952), the distinguished illustrator, painter, philosopher and teacher, is the focus of a fine exhibition, “Masters of the Golden Age: Harvey Dunn and His Students,” first seen at the South Dakota Art Museum and traveling to the Norman Rockwell Museum (November 7, 2015–March 13, 2016) and Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, Tennessee (June 24–September 15, 2016). A useful catalogue accompanies the exhibition.
Dunn began life on a homestead farm near De Smet, South Dakota. He and his resolute parents endured years of violent weather as they worked to tame their arid land and make it productive. Young Harvey attended the local one-room schoolhouse, and by fourteen, tall and muscular, he could do a man’s work on the farm—plowing, planting, cultivating and harvesting crops. Years later, his recollections of traversing the family fields to remove the ubiquitous glacial rocks were translated into a powerful image, The Stone Boat (1920–29).
As Dunn grew into manhood, stories about his physical strength and feats on his farm abounded; one involved besting two men in loading 150-pound grain sacks onto a wagon. His prodigious long hours plowing in the spring were also the stuff of stories. “Dunn embraced his life and lived it with passion,” says Lynn Verschoor, Director of the South Dakota Art Museum in Brookings, “becoming a legend in the process.”2
As a young man, Dunn was fortunate to have a supportive mother and an influential teacher, Ada Caldwell. Teaching at what is now South Dakota State University, Caldwell recognized Dunn’s potential as an artist and his determination to become an illustrator. As Dunn said, “With my eyes on the horizon she taught me where to put my feet.”3
With Caldwell’s support, Dunn enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), where he studied drawing and painting. While there, the young artist seized an opportunity when Howard Pyle, the Father of American Illustration, lectured at the AIC and invited talented students to join his school of illustration. Dunn applied and was accepted to study with Pyle in Wilmington, Delaware, and Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.
A hard worker and attentive pupil, Dunn flourished under Pyle. “Dunn’s South Dakota prairie background, combined with his legendary work ethic, was the stuff of American folklore,” says artist Dan Howe. “He quickly grasped Pyle’s philosophy and added a sodbuster’s grit. He was the size of a linebacker and spoke of art like Vince Lombardi—and he had a lot to say,” observed Howe. Howe’s favorite: “There are about ten thousand guys in this country that can draw and paint better than I can,” Dunn said, “but they do not know how to make a picture and they never will.”4 While embracing much of Pyle’s teachings, Dunn remained his own man, filled with ambition, resolve and enterprise. He continued to hone his already keen sense of observation, recollection and humanity.
Analyzing what picture-making meant to Dunn, Howe mentions first his “complete immersion into a subject.” Then, he says, Dunn “orchestrates the lighting” to apply it to aspects of the composition, reduces figures and objects to “simple shapes…[making them] part of a greater theme. This could only come about because Dunn, the artist, had the confidence to lay off of the drawing. He was after bigger game, a higher purpose. He was after the spirit of the picture.” Howe emphasizes Dunn’s overriding “empathy for the working artist,” such as the challenge of translating ideas into works of art. Dunn said: “Ideas are intelligent active things which present themselves to your consciousness for expression. You can only be receptive and express them as they will be expressed.”
Howe says Dunn bolstered his students’ spirits by pointing out that they were not alone in their creative struggles. “We think of art as sort of a flimsy thing,” he said, “but do you realize that the only thing left from ancient times is the art….The Greek statues that are armless and nameless are just as beautiful today as they were the day the unknown sculptor laid down his hammer and chisel and said ‘Oh, hell, I can’t do it!’”5
Early on, Dunn recognized that his experiences as the son of South Dakota homesteaders provided a wealth of prairie experiences that could be turned into art. He expressed the wish “to paint with the strength of a crowbar and lightness of a feather” in scenes in which everyday tasks are performed in uncommon situations. Dunn, says Howe, “invites us to empathize with his prairie figures, placing us in their shoes. It is the hook that draws us in.”6 Thus, Dunn’s expansive depictions of South Dakota’s vast landscape become the stage setting for empathetic portrayals of the people who lived there. We feel their exposure to bitter cold and snow, and to intense heat and dust.
His Plains experiences led him to appreciate the fortitude of women whom he recognized as essential, equal partners in homesteading endeavors. Works such as Homesteader’s Wife (1916), Woman at the Pump (n.d.) and The Stone Boat suggest the hard work and unremitting labor that was the lot of homesteading women. Meager moments of pleasure and perhaps surprise are suggested in Home (c. 1922) and R.F.D. (c. 1951–52), where hard-working women pause to enjoy a sunny day with a baby or a newspaper.
An example of his paintings that conveyed the hard work required for a successful frontiersman is Buffalo Bones Are Plowed Under (c. 1940), in which a powerful oxen team turns up prairie soil guided by a sturdy homesteader. The depiction of the panoramic setting, which includes distant hills and the homesteader’s sod home, suggests the artist’s familiarity with the scene.
The severity of winters on the Great Plains is documented by 30 Below (n.d) and Winter Night (1940–49), which portray the isolation and bitter cold endured by pioneers like Dunn and his parents. School Day’s End (n.d.) shows bundled figures leaving a schoolhouse nearly engulfed in snow. In a happier scene in warmer weather, After School (1950), two carefree youngsters gallop from the one-room school down a sunny, undulating prairie hill. The yellow of the girl’s hair resonates with the color of the terrain, suggesting her kinship with her homesteading life.
It is clear that Dunn himself possessed frontier-shaped fortitude, strength and resourcefulness. These qualities contributed to the muscular power of his paintings of frontier life and doughboys in combat. In line with Pyle’s admonition to know a subject first hand before trying to depict it, Dunn painted what he knew to be true. According to Verschoor, Dunn felt an artist “had to know it spiritually. And to do that he has got to live around it, in it, and be a part of it.”7
Dunn was unwaveringly determined to succeed as an artist. He worked hard, fast and accurately. Once, as a full-time illustrator, he created fifty-five paintings in eleven weeks for illustration assignments. Verschoor observes: “These stories illustrate his extraordinary productivity and capacity for hard work and show how he transferred his doggedness from the homestead to his job as an illustrator.”8
Dunn’s most prolific years came before World War I, when his work graced the covers or inside pages of America’s most prominent publications, such as Collier’s Weekly, Harper’s Weekly, The Saturday Evening Post and Scribner’s. Throughout his career, Dunn was guided by a statement about process: “When doing illustration, the first step is to feel your subject, then the idea, and last the composition.”9
Following Pyle’s death in 1911, Dunn helped fill the teaching void for illustrators, mentoring a number of important artists. Dunn said: “The most fruitful and worthwhile thing I have ever done has been to teach.”10 For years, stretching from 1915 until World War II, he made teaching an integral part of his life and his illustration practice. He was, by all reports, an inspiring but demanding teacher who was determined to prepare his pupils for the hard realities of life as a professional artist. Adapting many of his mentor’s teaching methods, he sought to go beyond teaching technique in the classroom to instilling a philosophy of art that inspired students to embrace the emotion, dedication and spirit that makes the creation of one’s best work possible.
For a quarter century, starting in 1915, he taught students at his Leonia School of Illustration (in a converted farm house) and his studio in Tenafly, New Jersey, as well as at the Art Students League, Pratt Institute and, notably, the Grand Central School of Art in New York. A highlight of Dunn’s career came in 1917 when he was recruited by Charles Dana Gibson, of “Gibson Girl” fame, who headed a government program to enlist a group of top illustrators to design posters and materials promoting the war effort. A few months later, eight artists, including Dunn, were selected to join the American Expeditionary Force at the front lines in France. Embedded with units, they were tasked with recording action on battlefields and creating compelling images that would promote support for the war effort back home, including the purchase of Liberty Bonds.
Commissioned as a Captain in the Engineer Reserve Corps, Dunn—aged thirty-three—had no previous military experience. Assigned to an American unit in France, he faced fire himself in the process of recording the look of battlefields, specifically the struggles and casualties of doughboys. His commitments left little time to turn sketches into paintings to be sent back to the United States for publication as intended.
After the Armistice, the military’s interest in the project waned. Discharged in April 1919, Dunn eventually completed thirty-three paintings based on his wartime sketches. “Rather than focusing only on the drama of soldiers in action that had been envisioned by the military, Dunn faithfully recorded a full spectrum of emotions and experiences in his art, which is powerful, emphatic and heartfelt,” says Verschoor.11
Among the illustrations finished for postwar commissions was Gunfire (1929) for the cover of American Legion Monthly. It was informed by Dunn’s memory of the brilliant illumination caused by muzzle flash when fired by field artillery. In The Devil’s Vineyard (c. 1918), an emotional, nuanced work, soldiers lie among a French vineyard’s wires and posts. Dunn’s subdued palette conveys a sense of calm after the storm, in a nearly Abstract Expressionist style. Another cover, Coming Off Duty (Camouflage) (1929), shows two rifle-toting soldiers wearing camouflage striding confidently into their encampment. Dunn’s paintings are among the most compelling views of World War I created by an American artist. They will endure as glimpses into the realities of that bloody conflict.
Dunn picked up his civilian role as an illustrator of fictional works with somewhat less enthusiasm than before the war. Painting more broadly and with greater spontaneity, he published illustrations filled with color, energy and life. At the same time, Dunn benefited from advancements in color printing technology, which picked up the vivid colors in his paintings. In the postwar period, he found that two of his students—Dean Cornwell and Mead Schaeffer—had become regular contributors to The Saturday Evening Post, which limited his opportunities there. He accepted fiction assignments for Country Gentlemen and such women’s magazines as Cosmopolitan, Ladies’ Home Journal and McCall’s. Several of his completed war compositions landed on the cover of American Legion Monthly.
In The Return (n.d.), which depicts the aftermath of a World War I bombing, the older woman has collapsed in tears amidst a few household objects rescued from her home, while a perky young woman sits upright (in a pose reminiscent of Norman Rockwell figures), looking to the future. Just as he was determined, charismatic and had a flair for the dramatic in his art, so Dunn brought the same qualities to his teaching style. “Dunn was a charming, accomplished, confident and gifted teacher,” says Verschoor, “who instilled in his students the ethics of hard work and determined commitment. He espoused a philosophy of living so that his students understood the need to express themselves through their paintings.”12 Knowing how hard he worked to hone his own painting skills, Dunn welcomed the opportunity to give back to students the guidance he had once received. He continued to teach at the Grand Central School of Art until it closed in 1944, bringing to an end his formal career as an educator. Cornwell, a respected illustrator who was an early Dunn student and a fellow teacher at Grand Central, saluted his mentor as a teacher: “Perhaps the most valuable thing that Dunn taught us was an honest dealing with our fellow men and a constant gratitude to the Maker above for the privilege of seeing the sun cast shadows.”13
A gifted interpreter of Western stories and scenes throughout his career, around mid-life Dunn began to look at prairie life differently. Annual family trips back to South Dakota from his adopted home in New Jersey prompted memories of the past and a longing for the simple but rugged life he had once lived. The themes underscored in his mature oeuvre included the virtues of hard work, man’s struggle against nature’s harshest conditions, the resiliency of pioneer women and children, the plowing of untouched soil for planting and an appreciation for life’s quiet pleasures.
In addition to his richly painted illustrations for periodicals of his day, Dunn’s work for the American Expeditionary Force conveyed the realities of World War I as effectively as any artist. His legacy also continued through the output of prominent illustrators he trained, including John Clymer, Henry C. Pitz, Mead Schaeffer, Harold Von Schmidt and Saul Tepper. They likely took to heart Dunn’s admonition to maintain the passion that first led them to careers in art. One of Dunn’s final acts of generosity was the donation of thirty-eight of his paintings to “the people of South Dakota” via South Dakota State University in 1950, with the promise of other works to follow. The South Dakota Art Museum is now the go-to place for scholars and others studying the career of Harvey Dunn.
Among his many honors, in 1945 Dunn became a member of the National Academy of Design. Not bad for a man who started out in a sod house in sparsely populated South Dakota. Certainly, it was those formative, hard years on the Plains that gave Dunn first-hand exposure to scenes he would later interpret in illustrative paintings. He died in New York at age sixty-eight. As both illustrator and teacher, Harvey Dunn deserves a special place in the annals of American art.
1. Robert F. Karolevitz, The Prairie Is My Garden (Aberdeen, South Dakota: North Plains Press, 1975), 6.
2. Lynn Verschoor and Dan Howe, Masters of the Golden Age: Harvey Dunn and His Students (Stockbridge, Massachusetts: Norman Rockwell Museum, 2015), 11.
3. Ibid., 7.
4. Ibid., 21.
6. Ibid., 23.
7. Ibid., 9.
8. Ibid., 11.
9. Quoted in exhibition wall panel by Stephanie Haboush Plunkett, Deputy Director/Chief Curator, Norman Rockwell Museum.
10. Verschoor and Howe, 3.
11. Ibid., 14.
12. Ibid., 12.
13. Ibid., 18.