Painting the Stories of a Hard Land
April 12, 2014
Harvey Dunn was a storyteller.
He didn’t use words.
He used images.
And the stories he told were forever etched in the minds and the souls of those who who would come to know the trials, the tribulations, the hardships endured by men and women who tamed a land that did not want to be either tamed or civilized.
Harvey Dunn was a child of the plains, and to the plains his art was returned.
His early life was spent on a homestead farm near Manchester, South Dakota, and it was not the easiest of lives. He was large for his age and had to bear up under the hard, unforgiving work of a man when he was only fourteen years old.
He farmed hard ground.
But deep inside, there dwelt the soul of an artist.
Harvey Dunn was attending South Dakota Agricultural College, which became South Dakota State University, when an art instructor, Ada Caldwell, realized his raw but brilliant talent as an artist. She urged the young man to study under Howard Pyle at the Chicago Art Institute, so dressed in his only suit, the lanky son of a homestead farmer headed toward the sophistication and night lights of a world where he was a stranger, lost and out of place.
He earned his tuition, doing odd jobs and working as a janitor, and gradually he was able to convince the noted Howard Pyle that he really did have the talent to draw and paint on canvas. In time, along with a few more of Pyle’s students, Dunn revolutionized the world of illustration. Collectively, they would be known as the Brandywine School.
Within two years, Dunn had established his own studio, and his work was appearing in such publications as Collier’s Weekly, Harper’s Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and Scribner’s. Sure, many of his paintings were actually printed black and white, but he had developed them strikingly rich color.
Harvey Dunn was prolific.
He was fast.
He painted with a spirited zeal, and, on one occasion, he was able to produce fifty-five completed paintings in eleven weeks for a variety of clients.
As one contemporary described his style: Harvey Dunn “literally attacked a canvas and sometimes I thought he would impale the painting with his brush.”
During World War I, at the age of thirty-three, Dunn volunteered for service and became one of eight artist-correspondents marching across the ravages of war-torn Europe with the American Expeditionary Force. He became a graphic reporter of combat at the front. Dunn fearlessly moved forward with the troops, filling scrolls with powerful images of devastation, both physical and emotional.
For him, it was the major turning point in his life.
His interest in commercial illustration began a serious decline. Dunn had visions of coming home and, while on the national payroll, transforming his battlefield sketches into major paintings for the military. But, alas, the War was over, the world around him was weary of war, he was discharged, and his project cast aside. Dunn felt as misplaced as he had on the bullet-scarred landscape of Europe.
A decade later, however, Harvey Dunn managed to salvage bits and pieces of his dream by painting covers with military scenes for The American Legion Monthly Magazine. The majority of his wartime sketches, displaying an emotional power that can still overwhelm an viewer, even today, were stacked away in the Smithsonian Institution in the National Museum of American History.
He taught at the Grand Central School of Art, telling his students: “If you ever amount to anything at all, it will be because you are true to that deep desire or ideal which made you seek artistic expression in pictures”
Dunn was, in essence, talking about himself.
He would return in later years to the plains of South Dakota and begin painting his memories and the stories of the land. One became his intimate masterpiece, The Prairie is My Garden. In the unforgettable painting, a mother, her son, and daughter are gathering flowers from the quintessential prairie of the Great Dakota Plains.
Very few of those prairie paintings ever saw print, but, two years before his death, Dunn donated forty-two of them to South Dakota State College, where he had first been encouraged to take up a brush and paint on canvas. The collection has grown to more than ninety canvases, and it remains on display in the South Dakota Art Museum. The native son had come home again.
The paintings reflect, as a critic said, Harvey Dunn’s ability to create vibrant, energetic canvases that sing with drama, emotion, adventure, and excitement.
Harvey Dunn experienced them all.