The Old West Revisited: W. H. Dunton

By David C. Hunt



Dunton stayed in Maine for another year or two, working at the store, saving his money, and occasionally contributing drawings to area newspapers and magazines. He was eighteen when he made his first trip west to Montana. Between 1896 and 1911 he traveled far and wide in the American West, mostly during the summer months, and mostly on horseback, sometimes working as a cowboy or ranch hand. He later remarked that selling pictures to publishers back East paid better. Where ever he went in those days, he carried his sketchpad and pencils in his saddlebags. He continued to spend his winters in Augusta or Boston, where he began taking classes at the Cowles Art School. One of his fellow students in Boston at this time was E. L. Blumenschein, who was to have a formative influence on Dunton's subsequent career.

Meanwhile in 1900, Dunton married Nellie G. Hartley of Waltham, Massachusetts. He returned with his bride to Montana the following year. A bunkhouse served the couple as a honeymoon retreat. Dunton already had made contacts by this time with publishers in New York City. As early as 1899 his illustrations had begun appearing in the National Sportsman and Nickell Magazine. He illustrated his first book in 1902.

In 1903 the Duntons moved to New York City, where Dunton shared a studio with another young artist, Carl Schwab. In 1905 they moved again to Ridgewood, New Jersey, where their first child was born. The Duntons had four children between 1905 and 1913. Two survived, a daughter Vivian and a son Ivan. Both of them appear in Dunton's later paintings. Meanwhile in 1908 Dunton was elected to membership in the Salmagundi Club, a social club for artists in New York, whose membership included several of Dunton's future Taos colleagues, notably Berninghaus, Blumenschein, Couse, Bert Phillips, and Walter Ufer

In New York City, Dunton continued to work for such magazines as National Sportsman. He illustrated a number of short stories, including several of his own. From about 1902 he began illustrating serialized features and then novels by Hamlin Garland, E. B. Bronson, and Zane Grey. At the same time Dunton's paintings appeared frequently on the covers of the nation's leading periodicals, including Harper's Weekly, Collier's, Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, and McClure's magazines. It was one of the most prolific as well as demanding periods of his life.

Winters in New York tended to drain him of energy and ideas, and Dunton spent longer periods of time each year in the West seeking new inspiration for his work. Between trips, when he could find the time, he enrolled in classes at the Art Students League. In 1911 Dunton again encountered E. L. Blumenschein at the Art Students League, where Blumenschein was teaching a class. Recognizing Dunton's ability and the direction of his interests, Blumenschein encouraged him to visit Taos, New Mexico, where Blumenschein himself already had discovered a rich source of subject matter.

Dunton visited Taos for the first time in 1912. With Nellie and their two children, he moved there in 1914, occupying a succession of studios until 1923, when he bought a house on what was then the edge of town. With the other charter members of the Taos Society of Artists, Dunton regularly exhibited in shows in Santa Fe from 1915 through 1917 and afterward in New York. Victor Higgins and Walter Ufer joined the group in 1919.

Dunton did not spend all of his time in the studio or on the road promoting exhibitions of his pictures. In his constant search for fresh material, he often camped out for days and even weeks at a time in the mountains near Taos, painting landscapes and wildlife, hunting and sketching in all kinds of weather, at all seasons of the year. He apparently required only a minimum of equipment to sustain him on these outings: a gun, bedroll, cooking gear, sketchbooks, pencils, and paint box. Wholly absorbed in his work, Dunton had little time for anything else.

Nellie did not share Dunton's love of the outdoor life and found Taos to be a dull, out-of-the way place offering few material or social advantages. Managing a household and family almost single-handedly finally wore her down. Dunton later said that she "cared nothing for art". At that, the marriage lasted for nearly twenty years before Nellie took the children and moved to Albuquerque, where she made another life for herself. She kept the children with her until about 1921 or 1922, when they began spending summer vacations with their father in Taos.

One of Dunton's more important paintings during this period was named The Cattle Buyer. This large canvas featured Zenith Curtis of the former Niles Ranch west of Taos as the principal subject. Dunton exhibited this painting at nearly thirty venues between 1921 and 1929, beginning with a show at the National Academy of Design. In 1924 it was included in the Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary World Art in Venice, Italy. In 1927 The Cattle Buyer was shown at the Art Institute of Chicago and included again in a Harwood Foundation exhibition in Taos. Lutcher Stark purchased it in 1938 from Dallas art dealer Joseph Sartor and added it to his collection of Duntons.

Sunset in the Foothills is another work which received considerable exposure when it was shown at the National Academy of Design, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D. C., and the State Fair of Texas, all within a two-year period. It too was purchased from Sartor in 1938. Along with The Cattle Buyer, it was one of the many paintings included in the legacy that passed to the Stark Museum of Art following the death of Nelda Stark.

A photograph in the archives of the Harwood Foundation dated 1932 shows Dunton at ease in his studio, lounging in a chair with a cat in his lap. Behind him can be seen yet another Stark acquisition entitled McMullin, Guide. Measuring 60 by 56 inches, it is one of Dunton's largest paintings and has become something of an icon for the Stark Museum of Art through countless reproductions in brochures, catalogues, and posters. First exhibited in 1934 at the Texas State Fair in Dallas and also at the Annual Exhibition of Painters and Sculptors of the Southwest in Santa Fe that same year, it was purchased by Stark before 1940, when it was listed in an insurance appraisal on file at the Stark Museum of Art.

McMullin, Guide represents one John T. McMullin, also known in some circles as "Curley John" and described by contemporaries as a "bear hunter" and "dude wrangler" who reportedly came to New Mexico from Oklahoma as a government trapper in 1920. Dunton placed McMullin at his ease upon a white horse, attended by a pack of hunting dogs in the foreground.

There is a decidedly theatrical quality to Dunton's staging of the subject, whose general appearance reminds one of a Western character in a 1930s Hollywood movie. McMullin looks directly at the viewer from a shallow perspective, on what almost seems to be a stage, against a two-dimensional backdrop of trees. The figures of the man and animals are flooded by an illumination which is again suggestive of studio or foot lights. The painting has been on continuous view at the Stark Museum of Art since 1978.



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