A few pieces in Boston painter Thomas Dunlay’s collection remind him to stay the course.
“I’ve always collected, since the mid-’70s, having the good pleasure and fortune to own some really good pictures,” say Dunlay. “These three all relate to my training and my goals as a painter. I come completely out of the Boston school. I studied with R.H. Ives Gammell, and people out of that tradition … well, we tend to learn what we do, and we stick with it. Rather than a painting having a different meaning today than it did when I acquired it, the painting reemphasizes what we learned about value and color, putting it down and leaving it. These paintings are reminders about staying on track more than anything else.”
The first piece Dunlay discussed was one by an early mentor, Robert Douglas Hunter. “This was one of my first awakenings,” he says. “It was a demo by a really competent and knowledgeable painter. Hunter did this for me personally; I was tagging along with him, painting. He went through his whole process of how he approaches a painting. It’s a three-hour study, and it’s a marvelous piece. This hangs on my wall and reminds me of his words every day.”
Next is a piece by realism giant R.H. Ives Gammell. “I had the great good fortune to study with Gammell from 1972-1979,” says Dunlay. “It was a great period of my life. Bob Hunter made the recommendation that I study with him, and it was very tough to get a position with him. If it wasn’t the right match, it didn’t work out. He only really had 19 students who stayed more than a year. That picture in particular is a reminder of staying on course, of not varying from the logical approach that I was given as a student.
“Gammell is known as a lot of different things. He was best known as an allegorical painter. He was known as teacher, the person most responsible for the outgrowth of ateliers that have sprouted up around the country. And he was known as an author. But most don’t realize that landscape painting was very, very important to him, even though he didn’t practice it in terms of sales. Landscape painting was important for his pictures. And therefore, painting on location was an integral part of the training in Boston.
“The goal was to seek nature truthfully and naturally. Gammell used it as the element of nature in his own imaginative work. He was always painting preparatory studies on location, all the way up until he died. The landscape was paramount in our training; in the summers we were painting outdoors for four hours every day. This piece probably represents several days’ worth of work. It has a remarkable sense of unity, but also the plain, humble sense of truth of the scene. It’s not about trying to impart one’s own feelings toward nature in a painting, even though that comes out. The painting will reflect our personality and our background. But the goal is to not deliberately interpret nature, not create a mannered look, but rather present the cold-blooded truth.”
Finally there’s a painting by James Perry Wilson, who may be best known as a diorama painter. “His pieces were inexpensive back in the ’70s — I maybe paid $100 for this — but in real life you would think this is a [Willard] Metcalfe. It’s that good. He’s sort of a phenomenon. Wilson is primarily known as a dioramist, but he spent a lot of his time painting outdoors, building reference material for his panels. There’s a diorama at the Museum of Science in Boston that depicts a hillside near Williamstown, a twilight view looking down the mountain. Gammell and I would go to that very spot often at that very time. I would think about Wilson’s diorama and realize what a really great painter he was. He’s an enigma in terms of how he got his training.
“After studying with Gammell, I came across this and picked it up. It’s another reminder to look at nature and paint it in such a way that a landscape tells what week of the year, what season, what time of day it is. That’s what I try to do in my painting. Here, it’s a lazy, atmosphere-laden scene in summer. He absolutely nailed the thing. He really got it right.”