Dennis Miller Bunker (1861-1890), A Brilliant But Tragic Artist

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“Dennis Miller Bunker Painting at Calcot,” by John Singer Sargent, 1888, oil, 26 3/4 x 25. Collection the Terra Museum of American Art, Evanston, IL “Dennis Miller Bunker Painting at Calcot,” by John Singer Sargent, 1888, oil, 26 3/4 x 25. Collection the Terra Museum of American Art, Evanston, IL



One of the most promising American artists who excelled at plein air landscapes and figure paintings was Dennis Miller Bunker. He was called “possibly the most gifted of the Boston painters,” and his friend John Singer Sargent wondered “if any one had a greater affection for him than I.” Nevertheless, he would have been completely forgotten were it not for the efforts of the artist R.H. Ives Gammell.

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“The Pool, Medfield,” by Dennis Miller Bunker, 1889, oil. Collection the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Dennis Miller Bunker studied in New York with William Merritt Chase and in Paris with Jean Louis Gérôme. By most accounts, he was an innately talented artist who, nevertheless, lacked the wealth, confidence and social graces he needed to succeed as an artist during the Gilded Age. He gained all of those professional assets through the efforts of friends like John Singer Sargent and Isabella Stewart Gardner, and later from his father-in-law, the prominent merchant Alpheus H. Hardy.

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“Meadow Lands,” by Dennis Miller Bunker, 1890, oil, 25 x 30. Collection the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Bunker hit his stride as a plein air landscape painter in 1889 when he began spending summers painting in Medfield, Massachusetts where he was inspired by the undramatic, peaceful aspects of the scenery. “You should see the Charles river here,” he wrote to a friend when describing Medfield. “All very much the reverse of striking or wonderful or marvelous but very quietly winning and all wearing so very well, that I wonder what more one needs in any country.” Bunker would return to Medfield in the summer and then return to Boston or New York to work on portraits of wealthy clients or to teach at the Cowles Art School. Among his most promising students was William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941) who, in turn, taught R.H. Ives Gammell (1893-1981).

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A photograph of Bunker at work in his studio

Because he died at age 29, most likely from cerebro-spinal meningitis, Bunker was largely forgotten by the art world until Gammell began promoting his work in the 1940s and 1950s. Gammell organized two successive exhibition of Bunker’s paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1943 and 1945; and then in 1953 he published an adulatory biography that served for many years as the basic source on the artist.

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“Marsh Lands,” by Dennis Miller Bunker, 1890, oil, 18 1/8 x 23 7/8. Private collection

Friends of Bunker remembered him as an earnest painter and teacher, and they often quoted a statement he reportedly made to Mrs. Gardner: “It is a mistake to have only one life. As for me, I am only rehearsing in this one — I might be a painter if I could live again and begin afresh. We ought to be given three tries, like the baseball me.”


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