1884 - 1952
Harvey Dunn was born in Red Stone Valley in the Dakota Territory, in a shanty on a land claim just off a major buffalo trail. The area had been the ‘frontier’ only a few years earlier. His parents were homesteaders who insisted that he help on their farm while he harbored bigger thoughts. In 1901, he left the plow behind and enrolled at the South Dakota Agricultural College, soon leaving for the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC). Just two years later, Howard Pyle, who had met Dunn after a lecture at the AIC, invited him to join the 1904 summer program in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Dunn studied with Pyle that summer and was deeply influenced by his mentor, noting well that, “Pyle’s main purpose was to quicken our souls so that we might render service to the majesty of simple things.”
In 1906, at the age of 22 and with Pyle’s active encouragement, he opened his own studio to begin a career as an illustrator. Dunn, a large bull of a man with country mannerisms, was almost an immediate success. He sold his first illustration to Keuffel and Esser Company of New York for an advertisement, and other commissions rolled in from magazines such as Century, Collier’s, Harper’s, Post, Scribner’s, and Outing. In all, Harvey Dunn painted over 250 illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post over the years.
Harvey Dunn married in 1908, and NC Wyeth was his best man. Dunn stayed in Wilmington until 1914, when he and his wife moved to Leonia, New Jersey. It was in New Jersey where he and artist Charles S. Chapman co-founded the Leonia School of Illustration while continuing to commute to clients in NYC. His first students included Dean Cornwell and Arthur Fuller.
Dunn instilled in his students the thought that “art schools teach complexities, while I teach the simplicities. The only purpose in my being here is to get you to think pictorially.” Dean Cornwell looked back on his days as Dunn’s student and said, “I was privileged to sit at Harvey Dunn’s feet…he taught art and illustration as one…as religion…” The influence of Pyle on Dunn was obvious and it did not lessen when he taught, for he passed along that which Pyle espoused to all of his students.
The legacy continued when he later taught at the Grand Central School of Art, where his students included the prominent illustrators John Clymer, Amos Sewell, Harold von Schmidt and Saul Tepper. Dunn also greatly influenced NC Wyeth and Frank Schoonover with his own interpretations, while continually touting his mentor, Howard Pyle. He once said that “art can not be taught. Pyle did not teach art any more than life can be taught, Dunn paintingbut Pyle lay constant stress upon the proper relationship of all things.”
During World War I, Dunn was one of eight war artists assigned to the American Expeditionary Forces in France. However, he suffered deep emotional wounds from his war experiences and it was recovering from war torment which engaged him in painting reminiscences from his youth on the Plains.
In 1919, after the end of the war, many of his paintings were turned over to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. He moved back to New Jersey and built a large studio to continue his career after being interrupted for the War. Once again his career blossomed prodigiously while he produced works so fast his art editors were in awe. He made many trips to South Dakota and painted the prairies as he had known them , before the onslaught of an increasing population, urbanization and highways.
The early influence of Howard Pyle on Harvey Dunn may be seen throughout his work. He went on to paint murals, while his illustrations appeared on many magazine covers. In 1950, he gifted his collection of prairie paintings and archives to South Dakota State College, where they now reside at the South Dakota Art Museum in Brookings, on Harvey Dunn Street.