Dennis Miller Bunker is considered to be one of the greatest American painters. He died tragically young, at age 29, in 1890. He studied with Jean Léon Gérôme at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, was one of the first ‘American Impressionists’, and he painted with John Singer Sargent.
One of his best students was William Paxton, who taught R. H. Ives Gammell (who taught my teacher, Charles Cecil). Gammell wrote a biography on Bunker, published in 1953, and in the book there are a number of personal letters given to him by Bunker’s widow. I reread the biography earlier this year, and the following letter from Bunker to his then-fiancée struck me as being particularly insightful into the working life of the artist:
You must try to realize how dull and monotonous an artist’s life is. There is absolutely nothing but work, work, work. And there is nothing in the work of an artist that shows his personality. You are marrying a man whose highest ambition is to conceal his identity, to remain above his work and apart from it, not to appear in it in any way – to be as cold and calm as a machine. Oh! if I only could, I might some day learn to paint! What I am trying to tell you is not to nourish any any ideas of an artist people whom you see may expound to you. Don’t think, as they do, that the charm of an artist’s work must be found also in his own personality. It is always apart, or should be, should have nothing to do with it, and that is what makes it such an infernal trade. Never to play on ones’s own twopenny flute but to keep the big end in view always; to remain patient and cold and quiet and work like a dog from morning ’til night; there is no other way of arriving even at talent, unless one is cut out of larger stuff than I am.
That’s it really. That’s all I wanted to say. Since you took the time to get here though, I’ll leave you with this passage from the book as well. In it Gammell beautifully express the idea of breadth and detail in painting:
People untrained in the art of painting often believe that finish is attained by simply adding detail to detail and consequently they dismiss it as a mere by product of industry and patience. Unfortunately this view does not correspond with the truth. For an essential characteristic of all fine painting is unity of effect and this unity is destroyed by any detail stated in a false relation to the other component parts of the picture. This is particularly true of the type of painting we are here discussing, the purpose of which is to recreate on canvas the impression made on the painters’s eye by the landscape before him. To achieve this end, each detail must be set down with just the degree of definition and coloration which it holds for the eye when the focus of vision is adjusted so as to include the entire scene depicted. Piecemeal notation of individual detail immediately destroys the requisite unity of impression and turns the canvas into a compilation of separately observed visual facts. This invariably results in a hard, dry look, destroying all breadth of effect and offensive to those who are quite unaware of its technical cause. It is, in fact, one of the most serious defects which a painting can have and perhaps the most difficult defect for an earnest painter to avoid. The ability to carry a picture to a high degree of finish without losing its unity of impression is the mark of a master and requires artistry of the highest order. It is the central problem of the type of painting which takes for its main theme the interpretation of the beauty of the visible world.
For those of you noticing the wide range of style in the posted images of Bunker’s landscapes, Darren Rousar has an interesting post on Bunker’s move from the more Academic influence of Gerome, to the Impressionism of his later style.