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Illustrator Harvey Dunn

Gifted artist, inspirational teacher

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June 23rd, 2017
Harvey Dunn's painting of American prairie life.
Harvey Dunn's painting of American prairie life.

When it comes to illustrators, Harvey Dunn was in a class of his own. He was not only a gifted artist capable of creating historically realistic compositions but also a consummate educator who inspired generations of future artistic luminaries.

Born in Manchester, S.Dak., in 1884, Dunn grew up on a homestead farm in a prairie region similar to that preserved in the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was here that Dunn completed his basic schooling, came of age, and from 1901 to 1902, attended South Dakota Agricultural College, demonstrating a marked skill in drawing.

Dunn soon caught the attention of an art instructor at the college, Ada Caldwell, who realized that the young student was destined for great things. 

Exposure to a master illustrator, teacher

Caldwell ultimately convinced him to further his studies. Dunn took her advice and, from 1902 to 1904, trained at the Chicago Art Institute, where he met renowned illustrator Howard Pyle.

Best known for his classic illustrations that accompanied the 1883 edition of The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, Pyle had long established himself as an effective teacher who specialized in literary and historical themes for books and mainstream magazines. 

Dunn moved to Wilmington, Del., and thrived in Pyle’s studio under the master’s guidance. He was as productive as he was talented. 

After a two-year stretch with his tutor, he opened a studio nearby in Wilmington. And success came quickly.

Passionate, aggressive, and driven, Dunn demonstrated almost super-human stamina. A friend once remarked, “He literally attacked a canvas and sometimes I thought he would impale the painting with the brush.”

In an oft-cited instance, he completed 55 paintings in just 11 weeks. What’s more, these works were for discerning clients, including Collier’s, Scribner’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and Harper’s.

Dunn was prolific and just plain good. But as an artist, his defining moment had yet to come.

Life-changing experience

When the United States finally entered the First World War in 1917, the military chose Dunn as one of eight official illustrators who would accompany the American Expeditionary Forces into combat in Europe.

Commissioned a captain, he worked tirelessly in the midst of heavy fighting, during which time he churned out stunning representations of what was arguably the world’s first truly modern war. In paintings such as On the Wire, he depicted the gritty, monotonous, and deadly routines of the average infantryman. 

Some compositions were violent, others haunting, and still others surprisingly serene; however, all of them helped convey to those at home the sacrifice that defined service in World War I. For Dunn, the experience was transformative.

Moved by what he witnessed on the battlefield, he lost interest in commercial illustration. Instead, he wanted to focus on his wartime expedition with hopes of some day winning an appointment as an artist-in-residence in one of the nation’s military academies. 

Nevertheless, with post-war demobilization, the country saw a rapid breakdown in the armed forces. Funding for its associated programs followed. 

Dunn’s proposed project never came to fruition, but he continued to paint military themes throughout the late 1920s for such publications as The American Legion Monthly.

Later in his career, he took a page from his mentor, Howard Pyle, and began to invite up-and-coming illustrators into his relocated studio in Leonia, N.J. It proved to be a renewed professional calling.

According to the artist, himself, “The most fruitful and worthwhile thing I have ever done has been to teach.” And as a teacher he flourished, in large part because he addressed the realities of the commercial world in which his students would eventually have to make a living.

Achieving any real success in this business, he told them, required more than talent alone. They had to believe in themselves and in the art they produced. 

Before his death in 1952 at age 68, Dunn had the privilege of teaching numerous artists—illustrators Arthur Roy Mitchell and Dean Cornwell being foremost among them. The reason that people still remember his name today goes beyond the canvasses he painted.

Dunn lived and worked by a motto that he made sure to pass on to his students. He never forgot that, if an artist ever amounts “to anything at all, it will be because you are true to that deep desire or ideal which made you seek artistic expression” in the first place.


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