Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dennis Miller Bunker's Warning to His Fiancee

Dennis Miller Bunker

Dennis Miller Bunker
was a student of William Merritt Chase (Art Students League and National Academy of Design in New York) and of Jean Louis Gerome in Paris (Ecole des Beaux Arts). Afterwards in Boston, he was in a small sketch group with Joseph DeCamp, spent the summer of 1886 with Abbott Thayer and then the summer of 1888 with John Singer Sargent. He taught at Cowles Art School in Boston in which William Paxton was his best pupil.

On October 2 Bunker married Eleanor Hardy in Boston. The couple then moved to New York. Returning to Boston to celebrate Christmas with the Hardy family, Bunker fell ill. On December 28 he died of heart failure, probably caused by cerebro-spinal meningitis. His legacy was passed on to his students, notably William MacGregor Paxton, who then taught RH Ives Gammell, who in turn taught a number of very fine, current painters.

As I read Gammell's biography of Bunker, I was interested in how he developed as an artist and how he lived, and also in some of the attitudes that artists of that time held. You might be surprised - and perhaps unpleasantly - because they are certainly not reflected in most attitudes these days.

Do You Realize What You're Really Getting Into?

Here is an excerpt from a letter to Eleanor with a dire warning of what it would be like to be the wife of an artist:

"Do you know what it is to live with a painter? Of course you don't! Do you see me getting up at two in the morning with a candle to look at my picture or rising at six to play on the piano, as I did yesterday, in a dressing gown, with my eyes half open or sitting up all night to fight over something that will seem to you of no importance? Will you care for the species of chimpanzee that we suspect of great talent? Will you feel the pang and the weeks of distress that come when you paint a poor thing? Will you be able to stand the conceit and absurd and idiotic talk when we've done a good morsel of painting? ...Are you to see me rude to all sorts of swagger people and afraid of the wash-woman?"

"You must try and 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 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 one'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.

I wish I could sink myself completely out of sight, so that when people looked at my things they would never think how they were made, never think that they were clever, or never think, above all, that they were personal. Great painting should have no stamp of its maker. I dream of doing a thing that is absolutely stupid - I mean what I say - absolutely stupid in style and manner of work but also in subject, and then have it of a truth so gigantic and bare and big that no one will ever forget it. But God knows how such a task is ever to be accomplished!

Certainly not by being smart for a few years and glittering in the sun and pleasing the bourgeois. It is so easy to be smart in Art, so easy to catch this and that quality of the time or the taste, the frightful smug taste of the public, so easy to do all manner of tricks of sentiment, of lies that people love and hug and live with and praise! Oh! how differently I can think of it! It costs more courage, more true courage, to do a thing with a true sentiment and in a true impression than any form of danger we can face, I think. Never to palliate a line or a tone; to know the precious value of what is human and beastly in us as well as what is great and noble..."

from RH Ives Gammell's biography of Dennis Miller Bunker

Tomorrow I will post some of his paintings and ask the question: Do you think that it is possible to hide your identity as you create a painting?


  1. I can't agree with Dennis on much of what he wrote. He seems to have been a very internally tortured man,, as talented and well trained as he was. As far as hiding one's identity.... I look at an artist's work as being something of a 'mirror of the soul'; some level of personal thinking and beliefs come through and can't be hidden, like fingerprints. To be totally anonymous through one's work for me is simply impossible. And of what purpose or value would it profit anyone in the first place?! I have always admired Mr. Bunker and am still inspired by him to this day, but I have a certain sorrow for him also. I find myself imagining what he would have accomplished if he had lived much longer....if he didn't drive himself to total despair! egp

    1. A couple of thoughts: First, Dennis was a product of his times. From what I've read those were days generally speaking when self-expression had not been particularly encouraged...certainly not like it is in our time. I do agree with you that one's personality, etc. will come out in one's work no matter how hard one tries to be objective. From the choice of subject matter to its arrangement to its rendering and the lengths one is prepared to go, stamps a piece with the artist's mark. Second, Dennis seems to have been a hyper-sensitive young fellow, some would even say bi-polar, and so the depths - and heights - of his emotions would naturally affect his thoughts.