The Old West Revisited: W. H. Dunton

By David C. Hunt



Stark also acquired canvasboard studies of the rider, the horse, and several of the hounds depicted in this painting. The Stark collection today includes numerous studies of the people and animals represented in Dunton's paintings. Many of the human figures and portraits represent friends, neighbors, and family members who served as models for Dunton's subjects and sat long hours for him in his studio. Lutcher Stark acquired most of these after Dunton's death from various dealers or members of the artist's family.

Dunton formally resigned his membership in the Taos Society of Artists in 1922, while continuing to maintain his professional and social contacts with the remaining members. The Society itself disbanded in 1927, having accomplished its original purpose. Meanwhile with Berninghaus, Blumenschein, Couse, Phillips, and Ufer, Dunton became involved in painting a series of historical murals for the then new Missouri State Capitol building in Jefferson City. Dunton completed his part of this commission, a series of three panels or lunettes, in 1924. Afterward he declined for the most part to accept public commissions or commercial assignments in order to work on his own projects.

With his resignation from the Taos Society of Artists, Dunton began scheduling his own shows. From the mid 1920s through the early 30s he traveled widely, exhibiting in Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, Fort Worth, and Dallas, among other cities. Local critics and journalists were appreciative of his work, admiring his draftsmanship and technique and responding favorably to his subject matter. A number of writers expressed admiration for Dunton himself, one writer declaring that he was "a typical son of the West."

Experiencing a decline in the sale of paintings during the Depression years, Dunton turned to lithography as a means of livelihood and produced a number of prints which were widely exhibited and sold. The collection in Orange, Texas includes examples of most of these, along with a series of sensitive, finely drawn pencil, crayon, and charcoal portraits of individual cowboys, hunters, and "old timers," some of which were reproduced in his prints.

In drawing so many Western characters, one wonders if Dunton was not also describing himself in his numerous portraits of Western types. He almost always appears in Western-style clothes in extant photographs, in contrast to other members of the Taos group, who invariably wore suits or jackets and ties when having their pictures made. Berninghaus in particular wears a conservative business suit in most of the photographs taken of him, in which he appears as more of a businessman than an artist.

Dunton may have thought that assuming the character of a cowboy helped to sell his pictures. In any case, he had worked as a cowboy in his youth and he was obviously comfortable in Western garb. He sported a succession of Stetson hats which were given to him by hat makers with his name embroidered in gold on the sweatbands. He wears one or another of these hats in most of the snapshots of him that survive in various collections.

Dunton was an all-round good story-teller in terms of his art. At the same time, the specific details of the objects represented in his paintings could be relied upon as accurate. During the course of his career he became an acknowledged expert on guns, saddles, and Western gear in general. He was also an experienced observer of nature who became one of America's foremost wildlife painters. Although he specialized in depictions of hunters, horses, and hounds, it is his bears, often comical and almost always benign, that are regarded by many as his trademark or hallmark. The Stark collection includes many representations of bears in Dunton's lithographs, sketches, canvasboard studies, and several large oils.

In personal as well as professional terms, Dunton was well-liked by all who knew him. Numbered among his acquaintances were pioneer cattlemen such as Charles Goodnight and influential admirers of the Old West such as Charles Schwab. Prominent collectors of his work included Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Douglas Fairbanks. He was one of the best known of the Western artists of his generation.

Dunton was 58 years old when he died of cancer on March 18, 1936. His friends remembered him at the time as having been a courteous, even-tempered man. In the catalog to the commemorative exhibition held for Dunton and Couse, who also died in 1936, Berninghaus described Dunton has having been a "picturesque character. . . who was always deeply engrossed in his own work. . ."

Self-directed and wholly self-absorbed, Dunton once said, in one of his more reflective moods, that "to live with my own mind, to have few material wants, to enjoy myself in the open. . . I believe I have found the secret of contentment. . . which is the work you love and the enjoyment of simple things."

Dunton's production in several media was considerable, both before and after he moved to Taos. His pictures reconstruct the Old West as he remembered or imagined it, depicting that time and place from an Anglo-American point of view and almost always in nostalgic terms, although he based his figures upon first-hand observation, meticulous studies, and realistic assessments based on visual experience. This was the case even when he experimented with abstractions of color and form in several of his later works, mostly landscapes. All in all, he was a careful draftsman and a thoroughly proficient painter from the technical standpoint. The largest collection of his work is owned today by the Stark Museum of Art.

In 1961 Lutcher Stark and his wife Nelda established the Nelda C. and H. J. Lutcher Stark Foundation to support the numerous charitable and educational activities in which they shared an interest. Following Lutcher's death, Nelda Stark assumed the primary responsibility for Stark Foundation projects, which included the creation of the art museum on Green Avenue, across the street from the restored nineteenth-century home of Stark's parents, and the construction of the Frances Ann Lutcher Theatre for the Performing Arts, also opposite the museum, on what came to be known as Stark Park in downtown Orange.

After having served for more than thirty years as the chairman of the Stark Foundation, Nelda Stark passed away on December 13, 1999. By the terms of her will a large personal collection of art, including many important paintings by Dunton, Sharp, Hennings, Couse, and other Taos and Santa Fe artists which had been displayed for many years in the Stark residence, found a new home at the Stark Museum of Art.

The Taos collection in Orange, the largest of its kind to have been assembled to date, continues to represent an important feature of the Stark legacy. Selected works by artists of northern New Mexico and the American Southwest are displayed in one or more of the museum's galleries throughout the year. Visitors from around the state, the nation, and the world come to Southeast Texas to view this body of material. It is one of the region's most valuable cultural assets.



Go to:

This is page 4

Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art, calendars, and much more.

Copyright 2003, 2004 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.