Dennis Miller Bunker was a pioneering nineteenth-century painter. He reinvigorated American Impressionism and created exquisite artworks in his tragically short life.
This brief biography explores Dennis Miller Bunker’s colorful wall art and his fascinating personal life.
Dennis Miller Bunker (born 6 November 1861) grew up in New York City, USA. Matthew Bunker, his father, was employed by the Union Ferry Company and gave the family a secure upbringing.
Bunker began his artistic training in 1876 at the Art Students League of New York. He later enrolled at the National Academy of Design and excelled in his studies.
By 1880 (at the age of nineteen), Bunker exhibited at the prestigious American Watercolor Society, the Brooklyn Art Association, and the Boston Art Club.
Bunker left New York City two years later (in 1882) to study in France. He joined the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, based in Paris. Here, Bunker studied under leading French Academic painters such as Jean-Léon Gérôme.
In 1883, Bunker traveled through the French countryside, accompanied by American artist friends. Alongside Charles A. Platt and Kenneth R. Cranford, they painted rural scenes, Brittany and the Normandy coast.
It was a formative experience for the young artist, defining his early style and ideas. Bunker’s Brittany paintings are particularly notable, often featuring rural life around the small town of Larmor.
These works were richly colored, contrasting dark figures against light-colored backgrounds. On the Banks of the Oise (1883) shows Bunker’s rapidly developing style. The painting depicts a single figure in the shade, gazing out over the bright, flowing river.
On his return to America, the Society of American Artists elected Bunker as a member. From this point onwards, Bunker created many seascape paintings, often featuring boats and beaches around Long Island. These artworks were highly academic, using detailed preparatory sketches and fine painterly detail.
With increasing fame and reputation, Bunker moved to Boston in 1885. Here, Bunker taught figure drawing and anatomy at the Cowles Art School.
Around this time, Bunker also enjoyed his first solo exhibition at the Noyes and Blakeslee Gallery in Boston.
Despite all these successes and achievements in America, Bunker longed to return to France. His limited financial means prevented this.
Nonetheless, Bunker had many artist friends in America. He accepted Abbot Handerson Thayer’s invitation (made in 1886) to join him and paint in Connecticut.
Bunker’s color palette grew lighter after working with Thayer. After this date, he favored saturated tones with increasingly Impressionist techniques. The vibrant Yellow Roses (1886) perfectly exemplifies this shift.
Bunker also met the wealthy patron Isabella Stewart Gardner around this time. She supported him for the rest of his career.
Moving among avant-garde artistic circles, Bunker made several notable contacts in the following years. He met John Singer Sargent in Boston (in November 1887) and created several society portraits of Boston families.
His masterful Portrait of Anne Page (1887) notably demonstrates influences from John Singer Sargent and Abbot Handerson Thayer. Nonetheless, most of Bunker’s Boston commissions depicted male sitters.
Mostly melancholy and dark in tone (exemplified by the portrait of George Augustus Gardner), these paintings reflect Bunker’s growing artistic confidence.
Bunker spent the following summer of 1888 with John Singer Sargent in England. Together with Sargent’s family, they stayed in Calcot (a village in Berkshire). The two artists enjoyed painting during the day and playing tennis as the sun went down.
John Singer Sargent painted his friend in Dennis Miller Bunker Painting at Calcot (1888). In this Impressionist work, Bunker stands beside a riverside, engrossed in his painting. A female companion sits alongside the water. Art Historians believe this lady was John Singer Sargent’s sister, Violet.
Bunker resigned from teaching duties at the Cowles Art School in 1889. After this, he traveled to Medfield, Massachusetts, and painted several delicate landscapes. These include The Pool, Medfield (1889) and The Brook at Medfield (1889).
Bunker met Eleanor Hardy in 1889. The pair soon began a romantic relationship. They married in October 1890, and Bunker produced an exquisite portrait of his new wife soon after their nuptials.
His architect friend Stanford White designed a striking gold frame for the work, currently displayed in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
Sadly, their marriage happened just three months before Bunker died from heart failure.
These months were the most productive time in Bunker’s career, however. He worked alongside and kept in eager correspondence with fellow American Impressionist friends, including William Merritt Chase and Thomas Wilmer Dewing.
Bunker was a key American Impressionist. He exhibited his first American Impressionist landscapes at the Boston Club in 1890.
After the success of this show, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (in New York City) invited Bunker to teach. This opportunity stemmed from William Merritt Chase’s popular painting class (who also taught at the same institution).
In June 1890, Bunker visited an artist’s colony at Cornish in New Hampshire. He continued painting feverishly over the summer and autumn of this year.
Returning to Boston in December 1890, Bunker anticipated celebrating Christmas with his wife’s family. He fell ill, however, probably suffering from “cerebrospinal meningitis”.
Bunker died of heart failure on 28 December 1890. He was just twenty-nine years old.
Bunker’s friends and family arranged his burial at Milton Cemetery, Massachusetts. His friends Stanford White and Augustus Saint-Gaudens designed Bunker’s tombstone. They also launched a memorial exhibition (held at the St Botolph Club) in 1891.
After Bunker’s death, Eleanor Hardy Bunker married the artist Charles A. Platt.
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