Masters of the Golden Age: Harvey Dunn and His Students

June 24, 2016 through September 25, 2016
Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, TN

November 7, 2015 through March 6, 2016
Norman Rockwell Museum

Norman Rockwell Museum and South Dakota Art Museum are honored to present the first major exhibition celebrating the art and legacy of American illustration master, Harvey Dunn. A brilliant and prolific illustrator of America’s Golden Age, Dunn was a prodigy of legendary artist Howard Pyle, and an admired teacher in his own right. Born on a homestead near Manchester, South Dakota, he left the farm to study at the South Dakota Agricultural College and the Art Institute of Chicago before becoming one of Pyle’s most accomplished students—along with N.C. Wyeth and Frank E. Schoonover—and eventually opened his own studios in Wilmington, Delaware, and in Leonia and Tenafly, New Jersey. Of his mentor, Dunn said, “Pyle’s main purpose was to quicken our souls so that we might render service to the majesty of simple things.”

In 1906, Dunn obtained his first advertising commission from the Keuffel and Esser Company of New York, and throughout his prodigious career, he created painterly illustrations for the most prominent periodicals of his day, including Scribner’s, Harper’s, Collier’s Weekly, Century, Outing, and The Saturday Evening Post. Exceptional examples of Dunn’s art for publication are featured in this exhibition, which also highlights the artist’s powerful work for the American Expeditionary Forces, recording the unforgettable realities of combat. During World War I, Dunn was one of eight war artists assigned to the American Expeditionary Forces in France. He struggled emotionally as a result of his wartime experiences, but found solace in painting visions of the prairie, inspired by his boyhood memories and his love of South Dakota’s landscape and history.

This exhibition is a collaboration of Norman Rockwell Museum and South Dakota Art Museum, Generous support has been provided by First Bank & Trust and The Max & Victoria Dreyfus Foundation

In 1914, following Howard Pyle’s death in 1911, Dunn moved from Wilmington to Leonia, New Jersey, which provided close access to his publishers in New York City. The following year, he founded the Leonia School of Illustration with artist Charles S. Chapman, explaining his unique mission: “Art schools teach complexities, while I teach simplicities. The only purpose in my being here is to get
[students] to think pictorially.” Among his prodigious students there was artist Dean Cornwell, who acknowledged Dunn’s influence on his career. “I gratefully look back on the time when I was privileged to sit at Harvey Dunn’s feet,” Cornwell said. “[He] taught art and illustration as one. He taught it as a religion—or awfully close to such.” Though Dunn and Chapman ultimately parted ways and closed their Leonia school, Dunn’s desire to share his artistic knowledge with the next generation never waned. He went on to teach at the Grand Central School of Art, Pratt Institute, and the Art Students League, inspiring many of the twentieth century’s most influential visual communicators.

Among the masterworks in this exhibition are original paintings by Dunn’s most prominent students, each of whom went on to achieve successful careers as illustrators themselves, including James A. Allen, Harry Beckhoff, John Clymer, Mac Conner, Dan Content, Mario Cooper, Wilmot Emerton Heitland, Walt S. Louderback, Henry C. Pitz, Arthur Sarnoff, Mead Schaeffer, Harold Von Schmidt, Frank Street, and Saul Tepper. Speaking to his students in clear and direct terms, as Dunn was known to do, he urged them to maintain the passion that first led them to pursue a life in art. “Merely knowing your craft will never be enough to make a picture,” he said. “If you ever amount to anything at all, it will be because you were true to that deep desire or ideal which made you seek artistic expression in pictures.” In 1952, when Dunn died, his New York Times obituary announced his passing with the headline Harvey Dunn, 68, Artist, Teacher, reflecting upon his ongoing dedication to his art and his strong belief in the value of sharing one’s knowledge for the benefit of others.

Stephanie Haboush Plunkett
Deputy Director/Chief Curator
Norman Rockwell Museum


Breaking Sod
School Days End
Empty Rooms
Dean George Lincoln Brown
A Figure Study
Winter Night
Aunt Emma
Street Fighting
Just a Few Drops of Rain
The Abandoned Farm
In the Open Sea

Harvey Dunn: An Artist’s Perspective

by Dan Howe

Harvey Dunn has been gone for over sixty years and renewed interest in his work is long overdue. Why? Because we need him again. Look around. Is there any artwork today that approaches the level of Harvey Dunn, his mentor Howard Pyle, or contemporaries that shared in Pyle’s teachings? Even in Dunn’s time, his unique philosophy was not for every student because it was simply too demanding, yet his thoughts on the process of making pictures drill down to each of us at such an individual level that the message is easy to miss.

To the Pyle faithful, the nature of what constitutes a picture—the very word itself—needs clarification. A picture is more than a drawing or painting in a frame, more than a couple of juxtaposed images in an interesting arrangement. In fact, it is more than the sum of all its compositional elements. To these painter-illustrators, an artist “composed” a picture in the same way movements of a symphony are arranged, creating sounds that reach deep into the emotions. Similar to classical music or great literature, a picture—an illustration—could rise above its subject matter and impart a greater truth. After all, did Melville set out to write Moby Dick because he wanted to tell us about a whale? What did Copland tell us about an Appalachian Spring?

Dunn’s South Dakota prairie background, combined with his legendary work ethic, was the stuff of American folklore. 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. You can find your own favorite Harvey Dunn quote to carry around with you. I have mine but must confess the words may be slightly rearranged after nearly thirty years of use. “There are about ten thousand guys in this country that draw and paint better than I can,” Dunn said, “but they do not know how to make a picture and they never will.”

What does picture making mean to Harvey Dunn? Luckily, Walt Reed’s comprehensive monograph on Dunn contains a concrete example of this put into practice. The subject is a sailor rowing a dory who is lost at sea. Dunn reworked the picture after it was published because he was dissatisfied with the art direction. In clear before-and-after terms, Dunn shows us his method of complete immersion into a subject. He orchestrates the lighting, emphasizes the wilted spirit of the man, silhouettes him with the boat, and casts his future in doubt with a threatening sky. The fact that the figure and boat are reduced to simple shapes does not make them less recognizable. In fact, the opposite is true; both are now 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.

Although Dunn would hammer this theme over and over, his teaching had other points of emphasis, and at times, almost sounds like Emerson or Thoreau. There is Dunn the Philosopher, Dunn the Humanist, but closest to his heart was an empathy for the working artist. He observed that when an artist gets an idea and sits down to sketch it, all the doubts and second thoughts that had been hanging around in the corners sleeping come alive. He advised his students to carry on, noting that, “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.”

Dunn also bolstered his students’ spirits with advice that stressed 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!’”

Moving from Dunn’s thoughts on making pictures, we can consider his art through the main fields in which he worked: editorial and commercial illustrations, portrayals of the First World War for the American Expeditionary Force War Art Program, and images inspired by his boyhood in South Dakota. Of these, Dunn displayed substantial variety of approach in technique and subject. His illustrations and commercial assignments show the clear influence of illustrator Howard Pyle, who was his teacher in Wilmington, Delaware. In these works, Dunn translates a single narrative idea into a picture with a single compositional focal point. The process works something like this: subject matter is simplified and grouped into abstract tonal shapes and patterns. These shape patterns accentuate the strongest contrasts of tone and color at the center of interest, an area which also has the greatest detail. Tone and color contrasts are purposely subdued elsewhere, and are subordinate to the focal point. In Dunn’s view, a picture comprised strictly of photographic detail would be considered a failure because an artist needs to make choices driven by the idea.

Black and White, which appeared in a 1912 Saturday Evening Post, provides an example of these pictures at work. This story illustration portrays a man carrying an injured figure from the battlefield, and its caption reads, “He warn’t nothin’ but jus’ a boy as I told you.” It doesn’t require artistic training to find the focal point of this picture and sense the idea of the story. The strongly silhouetted figures are centered with maximum contrast, a contrast not repeated anywhere else in the piece.

There were few artists better suited for depicting the rigors of battle than Dunn. We can imagine Dunn telling his students that “a fight scene should be painted to look like the sound of a bag of broken glass dropped on the floor.” Night Raid, Street Fighting, and The Return are compositions laced with broken, irregular, noisy shapes. In the two pictures from this group that depict actual combat, Dunn uses diagonal intersecting lines that suggest both action and conflict. In The Return, he portrays a different wartime experience. A little girl and her distraught mother are seen in front of a bombedout wall. He juxtaposes the symbol of prior conflict—the wall—with the stillness of the figures. “The silence that follows a train wreck is more dramatic than the crash,” Dunn reflected. His quote is emblematic of his interest in combining opposite emotional extremes in a single picture, an idea that he returned to again and again.

The war experience changed Dunn and sent him searching for themes on the same grand scale. What he observed on the battlefields in Europe would ultimately be found in memories of his South Dakota boyhood. The contrasting emotional themes woven into his illustrations and wartime pictures were now brought to light in his prairie series. His belief that “without strength, there is no tenderness,” and wish to “paint with the strength of a crowbar and the lightness of a feather,” are reflected in these scenes, in which common tasks are performed in uncommon situations. Dunn invites us to empathize with his prairie figures, placing us in their shoes. It is the hook that draws us in.

Dunn’s rugged depictions of the vast South Dakota landscape are punctuated by his knowledgeable and empathetic depictions of the people who lived there. We feel the characters exposure to the elements, from intense heat to frigid cold and wind, all on the endless horizon. Of these paintings, the strongest and yet most sympathetic character depictions are reserved for women. Dunn provides emphasis by placing his female protagonists at the intersection of opposing horizontal and vertical compositional lines. In doing so, these strong women dominate the horizon, heroines that meet the landscape on their own terms. Homesteader’s Wife presents this idea forcefully, while Home provides a similar impression in more subtle terms.

In pure painting terms, Dunn embraced Pyle’s tonal phi- losophy, adding to that his own sense of color. “If you get a rich statement of values with a little color in them,” Dunn remarked, “they’ll delight your heart.” We see this demonstrated in Dunn’s pictures rendered in subtle warm and cool grays with just a hint of stronger color to emphasize the center of interest. He could also use a bolder palette, and encouraged his students to take risks in that regard. Occasionally, he took his own advice to extremes, as seen in the swirling color-laden brush strokes in his 1933 painting, Breakfast in Bed.

Lastly, Dunn’s use of detail has an interesting twist. When a student produced a painting depicting unspecified tree shapes, Dunn suggested the picture idea called for a distinct type of tree, and not just any tree. He noted that if an artist understood the basic shape of an apple tree as opposed that of an oak tree, one would then be free to invent an apple tree to suit the picture’s needs. “You can be as sloppy as you like so long as you know what kind of tree that is [and] careless as you please about rendering it, but know its individual characteristics…,” he advised.

Harvey Dunn’s students carried forward his message in their paintings, their illustrations, and their own teaching. Their admiration for Dunn inspired them to capture his thoughts on painting in An Evening in the Classroom, a limited edition book published in 1934, offering a compelling account of his teaching philosophy as summarized by students who experienced his lessons directly. Of his experience in Dunn’s class, artist Saul Tepper commented that, “At times you didn’t always know what you were learning …it grew on you…the approach was poetic and musical, and you became imbued with it. He taught us about emotions; that a young man in Russia feels the same way about his sweetheart as a young man in Brooklyn; that fear is fear and love is love anywhere in the world.” And in Hal Stone’s view, “One began to understand, sooner or later, how the idea itself supplied the form of the design; that it started as desire, an insistent urge for its creative fulfillment, something to be filtered through our experience and emotions into a dramatic, pictorial concept.”

Harvey Dunn is gone, but his words and pictures are just as true now as in his own day.

About the Author

Dan Howe is a free-lance artist who has worked professionally since 1990. He attended the American Academy of Art in Chicago, and then traveled to New Mexico to study with the late illustrator and painter, Tom Lovell. He has taught at the American Academy, the University of Wisconsin, and the Scottsdale Artist School. His illustration clients include Marvin Windows and Doors, Binney and Smith, and Condé Nast, among others, and he has painted professional portraits for Oregon Health Sciences University, Southern Illinois Medical Center, San Francisco General Hospital, York Hospital, and University of Michigan. He currently lives in Connecticut with his wife and two daughters.

Related Events

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Masters of the Golden Age: Harvey Dunn and His Students – Gallery Tour
A film by the Norman Rockwell Museum, narrated by George Church III

Meet Harvey Dunn
A film by Frank Reilly, narrated by James Gurney


“Remembering America’s Golden Age”

SOUTH DAKOTA —In connection with The Norman Rockwell Museum, the South Dakota Art Museum is thrilled to have available a comprehensive exhibition featuring the art of Harvey Dunn (1884–1954). Dunn, a protege of legendary artist Howard Pyle, is renowned for his illustrations depicting the great plains of America’s Midwest, and his works were regularly reproduced in such magazines as Collier’s Weekly, Harper’s Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and Scribner’s.
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“Harvey Dunn at the South Dakota Art Museum”
Artful Living Magazine, June 30, 2015

SOUTH DAKOTA —The Norman Rockwell Museum and the South Dakota Art Museum are honored to present the first major exhibition celebrating the art and legacy of American illustration master Harvey Dunn. A brilliant and prolific illustrator of America’s golden age, he was a prodigy of legendary artist Howard Pyle and an admired teacher in his own right.

Read the complete article on…

Venues Hosting This Exhibition

Hunter-Museum Hunter Museum of American Art
June 24, 2016 through September 25, 2016