Dennis Miller Bunker, Chrysanthemums (1888)
Frank Benson recalled how Edmund Tarbell had come to him saying, “Dennis Bunker is making them out of fish-hooks these days,” referring to a type of brush-stroke that seemed very novel in Boston at the time.1
Dennis Miller Bunker, Chrysanthemums (1888) Detail
Dennis Miller Bunker, In the Greenhouse (1888), a study for Chrysanthemums
Dennis Miller Bunker (1861–1890) was an American artist who studied in Paris with Jean-Léon Gérôme. After his formal training, Bunker’s style changed. This happens to many, if not most artists. On occasion, as these changes progress the artist will repudiate his past (and thereby fail to pass on the traditions and knowledge which got them to where they are – but that is a subject for future posts). In Bunker’s case, he grew as he changed, carrying forward what he was taught, all the while incorporating a different way of seeing the world.
In both of Bunker’s early and late styles his sensitivity to form is what grounds his paintings. Undoubtably, it was Gérôme who instilled into Bunker a strong sense of form, something which R. H. Ives Gammell felt many Impressionists lacked.2 Take a look at the following two landscapes (as well as their details). Bunker’s sense of form (what Gammell called draughtmanship) is clearly evident in these paintings.
Dennis Miller Bunker, Larmor (1884)
Dennis Miller Bunker, Larmor (1884) Detail
Dennis Miller Bunker, Tree (1885)
Dennis Miller Bunker, Tree (1885) Detail
Given what was happening in the art-world of Paris, clearly Bunker would have been aware of the Impressionists. However, it is unlikely the movement influenced him at the time. Notice that most passages are simplified and that few brush strokes are seen. Rather, broad swashes of opaque and stained color were left to represent the main forms.
Although these paintings were done from nature, both Larmoor and Tree were painted when Bunker was under the influence of the “Bitumen School” (which was another term for what we might call the brown school). In essence, those of the Bitumen School painted their landscapes in much the same way as they would paint a studio work. This meant intentionally (or ignorantly?) ignoring the color of outdoor light and the all-pervading blue hue from the sky. Look at the overall brownness in the those two paintings and then compare them to The Pool, Medfield, below. Note that your screen may represent the blues in this painting and the attendant detail shots more harshly than is seen in the actual painting.
Eventually Bunker would become friends with and a painting companion of John Singer Sargent’s. Sargent had by this time been experimenting with Impressionist color and paint handling. Bunker also may have been influenced by the works of John Leslie Breck, who is reputed to have been the first painter to bring Impressionism to America. Breck certainly understood outdoor light and how to use brush strokes to represent form.
Dennis Miller Bunker, The Pool, Medfield (1889)
To get from paintings like Tree to those like The Pool, Medfield required an enormous amount of effort. Bunker, according to his letters, went through many failed paintings and more than a few ideas as to the correct approach to take. Only part of the struggle was in how best to lay down the paint. To represent nature, via relationally correct form (i.e. shape and value) and color, is a very difficult undertaking. It takes a master artist to consistently pull it off without resorting to formula or subjugating one for the other.
Dennis Miller Bunker, The Pool, Medfield (1889) Detail 1
Dennis Miller Bunker, The Pool, Medfield (1889) Detail 2
Dennis Miller Bunker, The Pool, Medfield (1889) Detail 3
There are two essential books on Dennis Miller Bunker. One is by Gammell, who, by the way, was a student of William McGregor Paxton. Paxton, at age 18, won a scholarship to attend Cowles Art School in Boston. Bunker was Paxton’s teacher at Cowles. Gammell’s book is titled, Dennis Miller Bunker and it was published in 1953. Now and then Amazon will have used copies available. Gammell’s book is a must have for all artists who are interested in impressionistic seeing, regardless of what their preferred subject matter might be. See also here and here.
The other book is Erica Hirshler’s Dennis Miller Bunker: American Impressionist.
1R. H. Ives Gammell, Dennis Miller Bunker, Coward-McCann, Inc., New York, 1953, Page 65.
2Ibid., page 67.