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.