He’s 33, married, the father of two young children, a successful commercial artist with a thriving career – not exactly the description of someone who might relish an assignment to the front lines of World War I.
But patriotic Harvey Dunn, as big and raw-boned as the South Dakota landscape he will later celebrate in his paintings, welcomes the news.
On March 7, 1918, just one day shy of his 34th birthday, Dunn learns he has been commissioned and selected an official artist for the American Expeditionary Forces now fighting in Europe. He’s to go to Europe and make drawings and paintings to show the troops in action. He receives his orders in a “state of maximum exuberance,” convinced it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that could be life-changing.
He’s right about that, but not quite in the way he expects. Though Harvey Dunn sets out intending to show war as soldiers know it, “the shock and loss and bitterness and blood of it,” shock and loss and bitterness will also be part of what he experiences as an artist.
Though he and seven other artists do their best to show what war looks like, their best earns little more than an official shrug from many of the military leaders in the closing months of World War I. And when the war is over, there is no attempt to keep Dunn or his colleagues in uniform any longer than necessary, though Dunn had anticipated perhaps years of work turning his sketches and drawings and impressions into finished works to help document the Great War.
It is to be perhaps the most bitter experience of his life, his art students later say, and they notice the change the war has made in him. But South Dakota ultimately benefits. What Harvey Dunn has experienced in war eventually spins him like a compass needle back toward home to paint what he knows.
Home is the prairie near a creek feeding into the Jim River where his father, Tom Dunn, files on a homestead three miles south of Manchester in November 1880. Harvey Dunn biographer Robert Karolevitz notes that the elder Dunn then returns to stay in Wisconsin until the following spring – fortunately, since the Long Winter of 1880-1881 brought hardship to settlers and might have convinced Harvey Dunn’s parents to look elsewhere for a home.
Instead, Harvey Dunn is born in Dakota Territory on March 8, 1884.
Dunn scholar Walt Reed says though Harvey Dunn’s legends have the artist growing up in a sod house, it was actually a 7- by 9-foot wooden frame claim shanty onto which a 12- by 16-foot addition had been tacked. Dunn’s parents moved a few miles away in 1888, where Dunn grew to be a strapping tall farm boy – over 6 feet by the time he was 14 – with a natural aptitude for art that he inherited from his mother, Bersha Dow Dunn.
In 1901 his talent took him to South Dakota Agricultural College – now SDSU – in search of teachers who could teach him to manage his gift.
“I was seventeen and went to Brookings. ‘Old North’ was somber against a sober first day of November sky,” he later wrote. “I had my doubts about a college education. The grade school District Number One, Esmond Township, did not equip for that. At any rate, all I was truly interested in was the art course. So to keep me from mischief, they gave me English, algebra, and physics, and I failed them all. I took the art, and there met that little lady, Ada B. Caldwell, who opened vistas for me. For the first time I had found a serious, loving, and intelligent interest in what I was vaguely searching for. She seemed to dig out talent where none had been, and she prayed for genius. She was tolerant and the soul of goodness. With my eyes on the horizon, she taught me where to put my feet.”
She steered him toward the Art Institute of Chicago. From there Dunn went on to study with the great illustrator Howard Pyle, also a noted children’s author, of Wilmington, Del.
That is where Dunn also met the woman he married, Johanne Loise “Tulla” Krebs, daughter of a local businessman.
By the time World War I broke out, Dunn was a commercially successful illustrator, selling illustrations to major national magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post – his work for that magazine spanned the years from 1906 to 1939 – while also working as an art teacher.
Yet Harvey Dunn never forgot his parents’ homestead or the nearby farm where he grew up near Redstone Creek on land that still had a buffalo trail running across it. Years later he would write: “There I lived until I was seventeen years old, and the buffalo trail was plowed under. When the glimmering along the horizon got too much for me, I set out to find the shining places which must exist beyond it somewhere.”
Oddly, what critics remark now is that the shining places Dunn is best noted for are in his “sun-drenched” paintings of his native South Dakota. Some critics speculate that his growing fascination for the prairie may be part of Harvey Dunn’s response to war.
Within weeks of the United States’ entry into World War I in April 1917, a Pictorial Publicity Division of the Committee on Public Information had been formed to bolster the American war effort through publicity, illustrations and posters.
By June 1917, the decision had been made to send volunteer artists to join the American Expeditionary Forces and record action at the front lines. The idea was that drawings and paintings would build public support and drive the purchase of Liberty Bonds.
The eight artists selected for the program were Harry Townsend, Walter Jack Duncan, George Harding, William J. Aylward, Wallace Morgan, J. Andre Smith, Ernest Clifford Peixotto and Harvey T. Dunn.
But it took months to get them commissioned and sent over to Europe. Stationed at Neufchateau, France, near the front, the artists made sketches and paintings that were shipped monthly to the War Department back in Washington, D.C.
Dunn attached himself to Company A, 1st Battalion, 167th Infantry, staying with the unit in action. But because of bad weather and the rapid pace of the advance, he was unable to make many sketches, though he formed vivid mental impressions.
Later he was active along the front from Neuville to Montfaucon, in the Meuse-Argonne, where in a month’s time he managed to complete six pictures.
In October, with the war quickly drawing to a close, Dunn painted four more pictures. He spent several days on the front north of Verdun.
All told, Dunn managed to complete only about 35 paintings before the war’s end, Walt Reed says.
Alfred Emile Cornebise, who has written about America’s uniformed artists in World War I, says Dunn’s count is actually smaller than that. He says that while Dunn made plenty of sketches, he completed fewer than 30 pictures while with the AEF, well below the average for the artists.
But Cornebise goes on to note the difference in quality in what Dunn was doing compared to the works of some of his fellow artists.
“Yet, in oils, watercolors, pastels, crayon, and charcoal, Dunn created some art of high quality, and as art expert Edgar M. Howell has suggested, in later years these works had emerged as by far the most popular of all the AEF combat art, possessing ‘an undeniable appeal which most of the pictures of his fellow artists oddly lack,’” Cornebise writes.
Howell felt that this popularity was the result of the successful projection of Dunn’s self-image, his ideal of the universal man at war and his forceful representation of this point of view.
Generals and majors don’t like what they see
Unfortunately for Harvey Dunn and his colleagues, some U.S. Army officers working with the military art program were not well pleased with what the artists were sending home.
“The fact is that the military brass were very disappointed in the pictures produced,” art historian Walt Reed writes. “They had wanted to show military action to use as propaganda. At cross-purposes, the artists were faithfully trying to record what they saw, which was mostly troops in trenches or on maneuvers and the effects of shell fire on ruined buildings. Ironically, it was the artists back home, even though they never saw any action themselves, who could better dramatize the war through their imaginations.”
How bad was the military’s view of its own artists’ work? In July 1918 Chief of Staff Gen. Peyton C. March sent a cable to Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American army in Europe, about the art program. The cable says “amount of work received here indicates unsatisfactory results from this personnel. Very desirable to have such work done well. Your comment desired.”
Pershing, conscious of the difficulties in the field, replied that the artists’ works appeared “fairly satisfactory” and urged they be allowed “reasonable time in which to demonstrate their worth.”
Maj. Banning, chief of the Pictorial Section of the Historical Branch, War Plans Division, who had helped launch the artists program, was also critical. He wrote to one of the artists, Capt. J. Andre Smith, that “neither the magazine editors for whom the pictures are largely intended, nor the officers of the General Staff appear to express very much interest” in the works.
Banning compares the AEF artists’ work unfavorably with that of Francois Flameng in the French magazine L’Illustration, saying “practically all of the official pictures received from the official artists of the A.E.F. to date, have the gentle and quiet atmosphere of the city studio. They lack action and they lack human interest” while dealing with topics that had been “treated hundreds and thousands of times with the camera.”
Interestingly, though, his complaint makes it clear that no pictures have been received as yet from Aylward, Harding, Townsed or Dunn and asks “What has become of these men? What disposition is made of their drawings?”
Pershing, in an ongoing skirmish on the issue, noted that by mid-September 1918, 283 pictures had been turned in by all of the artists in the program.
Eventually there will be more than 500. Yet damage had been done. Word had got around in the military that the artists were not close enough to the action and that the art they were producing was not interesting. To a degree, that attitude persists to this day. When the Capital Journal did this story, we talked to a military art historian who pleaded ignorance of Harvey Dunn’s actual sketches, but told us she was under the impression that the eight artists assigned to the AEF had not seen much front line action.
Shock and loss and bitterness and blood
Historians who have studied Dunn’s work from France disagree.
Steven Trout, who has written a book about how Americans remembered World War I, talks at length about Harvey Dunn. Trout writes: “When first commissioned, Dunn, ‘a super patriot,’ made a near boast of the ugliness he expected to encounter. He would, he told a friend, paint war in the raw – ‘the shock and loss and bitterness and blood of it.’ However, months of exposure to ‘shock and loss’ carried a greater psychic and emotional strain than the rugged painter anticipated, and it is perhaps important to remember in this regard that although technically a noncombatant, Dunn saw more frontline action than many of the doughboys he depicted in his paintings – more, in fact, than the vast majority of men in the AEF.”
Trout adds that it is precisely the grim reality of Dunn’s work that could also have made it unpopular with some in the military. He cites the example of a Dunn drawing called Prisoners and Wounded. Trout writes: “The pain and exhaustion recorded on the canvas is palpable. Nothing, one suspects, could have been further from the kind of art that the War Department hoped to receive from Dunn – except perhaps No Man’s Land, a depiction of apocalyptic ruin completed around the same time as Prisoners and Wounded. Here Dunn presents a smoke-shrouded moonscape that is utterly devoid of life.”
Whatever the reason, Dunn and his fellow artists were not allowed to remain in uniform long after the war was over. Dunn returned to the U.S. and was discharged in April 1919.
He went back into teaching a changed man – perhaps partly the war, perhaps in part the feeling of rejection for a body of work left unfinished.
One of Dunn’s students, Dean Cornwell, said Dunn’s early discharge was “the big heartbreak of his life.”
Cornebise notes that what Dunn says he wants after the Great War is not just commercial success as a book and magazine illustrator – it is to paint art ‘which could be framed to hang for posterity.”
Dunn found some satisfaction when American Legion Monthly began using his work as cover art starting in January 1928 in an attempt to find “more virile” illustrations for its covers. But it wasn’t the sum of what Harvey Dunn needed to do to deal with war.
Historians such as Cornebise and Steven Trout, along with Director Lynn Verschoor of the South Dakota Art Museum, agree that some of Dunn’s response to war is arguably what brought Dunn’s attention back to painting South Dakota.
Cornebise writes that Dunn “eventually came to realize that what he knew even better than war was Dakota … These strikingly beautiful pictures capture not only the essence of much of America’s frontier experience in the Dakotas but much of Dunn’s personality as well. The art reveals the boldness of its creator, as well as the harsh frontier he knew as a boy.”
Trout sees the same new direction in Dunn, noting that “increasingly, his more personal and ambitious canvases depicted the Dakota Territory of his childhood, a sun-drenched world of wildflowers, windswept grasses, distant horizons, and vast skies. A world far from the shattered forests and cratered fields of the Meuse-Argonne. Stunningly beautiful, these paintings betray a yearning for a simpler time located decades before the First World War and its industrialized slaughter.”
Insightfully, Trout notes that photos of Harvey Dunn at work on those Dakota paintings and other works in his Tenafly, New Jersey, studio contain a tantalizing detail. A row of imperial German helmets is visible in the studio, along with a World War I shovel, a gas mask, and other accoutrements of trench warfare.
“Part of the trophy collection given to Dunn by the AEF in 1919, these mementoes signify the painter’s continued fascination with the war (and, perhaps, his lingering ambition to dominate its artistic representation), even as he sought refuge from battlefield horrors through a nostalgic return to childhood scenes … ambivalence and contradiction would define Dunn’s relationship with war – and with memory,” Trout writes.
Lynn Verschoor, director of the South Dakota Art Museum, agrees that the impact of the Great War on Harvey Dunn was profound.
“You don’t just shake a war off by coming home to America,” Verschoor said. “When he came back, he saw the world differently.”
There are even accounts, Verschoor said, that suggest that Dunn may have been gassed.
Whatever the extent of his personal turmoil from World War I, South Dakota is the richer for it. Harvey Dunn’s war art directly influenced James Pollock of Pierre when he volunteered as a combat artist himself during Vietnam, and South Dakota’s other war artists – Vietnam combat artist Steve Randall of Sioux Falls and Iraqi war artist Heather Englehart – have come to appreciate Harvey Dunn’s work when they learned about it after their own military service. But there’s no doubt that Dunn’s cloud-hung South Dakota landscapes are far more widely known.
“That may have been how he processed things – to get in the car and come back home,” Verschoor said.