The Old West Revisited: W. H. Dunton

By David C. Hunt



Artists always have depended for .a living on buyers, markets, or patronage of one kind or another. Patronage itself has taken many forms: private, corporate, and institutional. The relationship between the artist and the private patron or collector has long interested art historians, who have tended to pay more attention to the artist than the collector in evaluating individual contributions to art. Nevertheless, the impulse or passion to collect, often amounting to a life-long preoccupation for those with the means to indulge it, has advanced many an artist's career and resulted in the creation of some of the most important museum holdings in the world today.

Dean Porter and Teresa Ebie dealt at length with this subject in Taos Artists and Their Patrons, 1898-1950, published in 1999 by the Snite Museum of Art and the University of New Mexico Press. In surveying various inventories of Southwestern art, the authors discussed the roles of state and municipal governments, foundations, and individuals in preserving local collections. They also reviewed the activities of those whose interests, tastes, and acquisitiveness brought together large holdings of this material, devoting entire chapters to Thomas Gilcrease, Marion Koogler McNay, and H. J. Lutcher Stark, who founded museums to house their respective collections.

Today the Stark Museum of Art in Orange, Texas maintains the largest representation of works by members of the Taos Society of Artists. Comprising more than 700 examples in various media, this collection was created over a period of nearly 40 years by Orange native Lutcher Stark, who regularly visited the art colony in northern New Mexico during annual excursions to his family's vacation ranch in Colorado.

In Taos, Stark became acquainted with a number of painters, visiting their studios and establishing long-term business relationships with several of them. Today the works of these artists form a significant part of a larger collection of 3,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints which have been featured in a succession of exhibitions since the Stark Museum of Art opened its doors to the public in 1978.

Lutcher Stark acquired his first painting while attending the University of Texas in Austin. The son of a prominent Southeast Texas family, he returned home to Orange following graduation in 1910 and eventually assumed management of the Stark timber, oil, and investment enterprises, taking an active part in civic affairs and generally involving himself in the cultural life of the community. A man of many interests, he continued to collect paintings, sculptures, rare books, and folios pertaining to American art and natural history, with a growing emphasis on the art of the American West. He began acquiring works by contemporary Taos painters in the mid-1920s.

Stark's initial purchases included works by Joseph Henry Sharp, William Herbert Dunton, Oscar Berninghaus, and Irving Couse. In time Ernest Martin Hennings, E. L. Blumenschein, and Victor Higgins were added to his list. His acquisitions over the years helped to sustain or advance the careers of several artists, especially during the lean economic years of the 1930s. His support of artists' families through subsequent purchases continued into the 1950s.

Visits to Taos by Lutcher Stark and his wife Nelda invariably generated considerable interest among the resident artists. The Taos Valley News duly reported their arrival in town on October 1, 1953 and mentioned that the couple planned to attend the opening of a Berninghaus retrospective. The newspaper also mentions ''the museum Mr. Stark plans to build in his home town" which will house "many of the works of the late W. H. Dunton, which he has owned for some time, and that of other Americans, old masters, and art objects." Stark did not live to see the creation of the museum, but he continued to collect material for it until his death in 1965. Nelda Stark saw to the eventual construction of the facility that he had only dreamed about.

A letter :from Berninghaus on file in the Stark library indicates that Lutcher Stark visited the artist's studio in 1927. This same year Stark made one of his first Dunton purchases, an oil painting entitled The Luckless Hunter, featuring a downcast rider on a weary horse plodding through the deep snowdrifts of a wintry landscape. Extant letters between Stark and "Buck" Dunton attest to an agreeable association and Stark continued to buy :from Dunton over the next several years, assembling in time more than 400 examples of his work in various media, including original illustrations that Dunton produced for Harper's and Scribner's magazines before World War I and a series of lithographs issued during the 1930s. Of the other artists in Taos, only Martin Hennings enjoyed perhaps a closer personal relationship with Lutcher Stark, especially after Dunton's death, and Hennings visited Orange on more than one occasion to show Stark his latest work. Stark usually bought everything Hennings had to sell.

Dunton was one of the founders of the Taos Society of Artists, whose members initially banded together to promote exhibitions of their work. Largely self-taught, he was primarily a painter of traditional Western themes and subjects in his portrayals of frontiersmen and cowboys. Unlike his fellow artists, he represented little of the multicultural life of the contemporary Taos community which had attracted most of them to that area. It was the unspoiled nature of the Taos environs that attracted Dunton, and the picturesque landscape of Northern New Mexico that brought out the best in him. Taos suited him like no other place.

In The Art and Life of W. Herbert Dunton, published in 1984 by the Stark Museum of Art and the University of Texas Press, Julie Schimmel emphasized that among his fellow artists in Taos, Dunton was ''the only one to depict primarily New Mexican wildlife and the Anglo inhabitants, at least those who represented the vanishing West -- the cowboys, cattlemen, bounty hunters, prospectors, and hunting guides who had discovered the West by horse, mule, and wagon, not by automobile."

This author describes Dunton as having been a "self-made man who largely took his art training into his own hands, even though he credited several schools and teachers with instruction." Schimmel notes that he pursued his subject matter ''with a similar spirit of self-reliance," and concludes: "Dunton unquestionably shaped his life to suit his enthusiasms. "

Born in Augusta, Maine on August 28, 1878, the son of a photographer and sometime reporter for the Kennebec Journal, William Herbert Dunton grew up on his maternal grandparents' farm and at an early age learned to hunt and fish. As a boy, he spent most of his time out-of-doors. He found formal education irksome and left high school in 1894 at the age of sixteen to work in a clothing store in Augusta. By this time he had sold a few drawings to the Boston Globe and to Lewiston and Bangor newspapers.



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