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The Look Of The Last Frontier

July 2024
1min read

Harvey Dunn’s canvases re-create the hopes, the heartbreaks, and the high courage of South Dakota’s hardy pioneers

Harvey Dunn, whose paintings have prompted the commentary by Mari Sandoz which begins on the following page, was a huge man physically. Big, bluff, and hearty, he painted in a big, bluff way. But at the same time he was honest and humble. All his life he sought, as he once said, “to render service to the majesty of simple things.” He grew up on the Dakota frontier. Born in a sodhouse just off the main buffalo trace south of Manchester, South Dakota, he earned money plowing in order to enroll in the State Agricultural College at Brookings, where he failed every course except art. After a year at the school, on the advice of his art teacher and with the encouragement of his mother, he went to Chicago and entered the Art Institute. In the two years he spent there he made his mark, and in 1904 he was selected by Howard Pyle to study commercial illustrating at his studio in Wilmington, Delaware. An almost immediate success as an illustrator, Dunn was painting for the Saturday Evening Post as early as 1908. With an associate he opened an art school in Leonia, New Jersey, and later taught at the Grand Central School of Art in New York. The “Dunn School of Illustration” was the product of these years, and among his pupils were such prominent men as Dean Cornwell, Harold Von Schmidt, and John Steuart Curry. During World War I he was one of eight artists commissioned in the A.E.F. to produce a pictorial record of America’s participation in the war ( see A MERICAN H ERITAGE , October, 1959, pp. 7 ff.). The pictures he did in France—now in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution—are easily the best known and most popular of all the combat art of that conflict. Afterward he continued to reside in the East, teaching and painting, but he regularly returned to South Dakota each summer. By the late 1930’s he had virtually left the field of illustration and turned more and more to painting his beloved prairies, with a power and poetry that will be evident to the reader in the next twelve pages. All but two of the works reproduced here hang in the Pugsley Union at South Dakota State College, and of all of them it may be said that they possess the “simple majesty” of the country he knew and loved.

—Edgar M. Howell Smithsonian Institution

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