Friday, January 27, 2012


Harvey Thomas Dunn

Harvey Thomas Dunn was born on March 8, 1884 on a homestead farm near Manchester, South Dakota. The young man's talent was first recognized by Ada Caldwell, an art instructor at South Dakota Agricultural College (presently South Dakota State University), which Dunn attended during 1901-1902. Urged by Caldwell, Dunn pursued his artistic studies at the Art Institute of Chicago under the instruction of Howard Pyle, one of America's most important illustrators.
In 1906, after two years with Pyle, Dunn established his own studio in Wilmington, DE and immediately began a successful career in illustration. In 1915 he opened the Leonia School of Illustration, NJ. Shortly after starting the school, Dunn was tapped into service in World War I as one of eight artist-correspondents with the American Expeditionary Force in Europe. Dunn returned from the War and his artistic career continued to excel. He is remembered as South Dakota's finest artist; having left a legacy as a war reporter, teacher, and painter of the Plains of his native state.

Sunday Morning at Cunel
American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) WWI 1918
National Archives

They are Giving all Will You Send Them Wheat?
WWI Propaganda Lithograph, 1918
Printed by W F Powers Co Litho NY

Dunn was 33 in 1917 and past the age of military service, but he was chosen as one of a cadre of eight artists who were commissioned to serve as graphic reporters of combat activities at the front. He was a fearless reporter and filled scrolls with powerful images of devastation, both physical and emotional. He wanted desperately to transform these reams of drawings into finished paintings and expected to be kept on the national payroll as he completed the proposed canvases. But he was discharged in 1919 immediately after the war and had to return to commercial work to support himself and his family. It was a bitter disappointment.
His drawings still exist, many at the Smithsonian, and display an emotional power that still can overwhelm the viewer, even today Settling back into the illustrative grind was simply not as satisfying as it had been before his war experiences. He moved to Tenefly, New Jersey, in 1919 and built a large studio adjacent to his new home. More and more he felt the need to create lasting art, in addition to illustration. He was commissioned to paint five mural-like panels for the 100th anniversary of a New York department store in 1925, but this failed to supply him with the fulfillment he sought.
In 1928 a venue opened up for Dunn to complete several of his proposed war canvases. The American Legion Monthly magazine began to feature his paintings as covers and Dunn's vision of the war was recorded for posterity. There were still two other goals yet to be reached: teaching and capturing the beauty of his native Dakotan prairie. The Legion magazine covers allowed him a venue for the latter and teaching was never far from his thoughts. Pyle's legacy would never find a more ardent supporter or capable disciple.

Aetna Life Insurance Company ad illustration, 1930

From 1926 to 1942 he taught at the Grand Central School of Art, which held classes on the top floor of the actual terminal building. Students rode a special elevator located on track 23 to the sky-lighted 7th floor. The Grand Central Terminal was the heart of America's modern streamlined industrial commerce. This setting inspired Dunn's students to consider the power of their own commercial work to elevate mass media to a higher level of art, by generously filling their work with the power of their unique inner spirit. Among his many pupils were pulp artists Lyman Anderson, Ernest Chiriacka, John Clymer, Dean Cornwell, Curtis Delano, Don Hewitt, Norman Saunders, Amos Sewell, Gloria Stoll, and Herbert Morton Stoops.
Dunn believed the purpose of illustration was to set the stage for the reader's imagination. He would often select a scene that was not described in detail in the text, in order to concentrate on depicting the mood of the story instead of the details. Dunn's approach to painting was to first establish the darker tones that provide base color values and contrasts and then build up to the light tones. Figures started with the heads, and the heads had to remain the most interesting elements in the final painting.
After WW2, Dunn only taught occasional seminars. He was the President of the Society of Illustrators, and he used that platform to vigorously attack changes in the publishing industry that threatened to destroy the noble humanist traditons of illustration art. Dunn could see that the need of corporate mass marketing to control a unified media message would soon destroy the classic era of freelance illustration by stifling the voice of the artist's individual creativity. Up until then magazines had used art editors to make curatorial selections from trusted artists, but that cordial relationship ended when art editors were replaced by art directors, or as Dunn called them, "art dictators!," whose prescribed assignments were best fabricated by anonymous graphic studios. "If I can't sign my own name on a painting, why would I bother to paint it! I'd rather quit the business and paint landscapes. 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." — Harvey Dunn He died of cancer at age 68 on October 29, 1952.
(David Saunders 2009 at

Harvey Dunn'S Prairie Works

The Prairie Is My Garden
South Dakota Art Museum, Brookings

The South Dakota Art Museum maintains a large, comprehensive collection of work by South Dakota artists. A substantial collection of works by Harvey Dunn—one of South Dakota’s favorite artists and a former SDSU student—is housed permanently in the South Dakota Art Museum.
Visitors think it's their aunt or grandmother who is gathering wildflowers in The Prairie is My Garden (above), but no one knows the identities of the people in Harvey Dunn’s masterpiece. “We have lots of claims from people who know who it is,” says Lynn Verschoor, director of the South Dakota Art Museum in Brookings, where The Prairie is My Garden hangs. “But he (Dunn) was an illustrator. He drew people all the time, with just generic faces.”
In fact, very little is known about Dunn’s most recognized Dakota landscape. Records are complete enough to show that Edgar Soreng, a member of South Dakota State College’s class of 1908 and a friend of Dunn’s, donated the work sometime between 1950 and 1970. The scene is likely a combination of Dunn’s memories growing up at Manchester in Kingsbury County and later summertime visits home, when he spent countless hours behind the wheel of his car sketching prairie vistas.

Jedediah Smith in the Badlands

The Prairie Trail

Harvey Dunn’s paintings of pioneer life on the South Dakota prairie have come to symbolize the state's early history. Even though Dunn died more than 60 years ago, he's still one of the region's most famous artists. He is an inspiration to local artists and warms the heart of many enthusiastic admirers. Dunn traveled extensively but he always seemed to come back to the inspiration of his beloved home state, South Dakota.
He painted with bold strokes of windswept color, depicting the strength and hardships of pioneer life. As a war artist for World War 1 he shared his observations, the ruins of armed combat while documenting the history of battles. Illustrating books and magazines he sold smiles and ideas with story telling pictures. Teaching, he spoke about spirit and emotions more than technique with his students.
Harvey Dunn paintings are full of life, energy and emotion. His impressionistic painting style is reminiscent of Norman Rockwell, but perhaps with a more documentary note. Bright blues, crisp yellows and warm browns draw you into each painting to reveal their own story of the past. Dunn was known to “attack the canvas” with a brush, moving energy from artist and idea into each painting. The power of his convictions is evident in the moving brush strokes, impasto style layers of paint and composition of color. Foggy climates in blue grey give way to the mangled limbs of war soldiers, wind blown skirts and prairie grass blaze under a golden Dakota sun; wind, light and atmosphere are as real as if you had stepped inside the mind of Mr. Dunn.
Dunn created vibrant, energetic canvases that sing with drama, emotion, adventure and excitement. Even though many of his paintings were printed as black and white illustrations, he painted them in strikingly rich color, perhaps partly to please himself and partly to honor the extremely high standards of his mentor. His illustrations appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s Weekly, Harper’s Magazine and Scribner’s as well as in numerous books. He emphasized the emotion and feeling of the image, taking Pyle’s advice to project oneself into the scene being painted, and he became a master of dramatic composition.
(Charley Parker at

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