Museum of Nebraska Art

Kearney, NE


Following is an essay written for the exhibition "Travels with Gus," by Josephine Martins, Curator, Museum of Nebraska Art. The exhibition will be shown September 23 - December 9, 2001.


The Museum of Nebraska Art invites you to take a cross-country journey with one of Nebraska's founding painters, Augustus "Gus" Dunbier (1888-1977). "Travels with Gus" is the second major show at MONA of the work of Dunbier. The first was a retrospective, "Augustus Dunbier: Nebraska Impressionist" held in the spring of 1994. Encompassing nearly fifty years of Dunbier's career (from the 1920's through the 1960's) the current exhibition highlights an impressive grouping of landscape paintings from the collection of Lonnie Pierson Dunbier; featured in her publication "Augustus W. Dunbier: Paint for the Love of Color."

As you begin your own travels with Gus you will notice that each work in this grouping has a remarkably similar quality. You can address the show in its entirety considering Dunbier's collective intention, or study each piece independently observing the distinct mood of each depicted location. Taken as a whole the paintings have a charming travelogue attribute documenting Dunbier's wanderlust. He continued to use his Omaha studio as the home base cultivating, along with J. Laurie Wallace, a reputation as a successful portrait painter. And despite his intense loyalty to his native Nebraska scenery, where he painted most of his landscapes, his streak of "gypsy blood" and the allure of yet another undocumented locale pulled him toward many painting excursions. He traveled throughout the country during his lengthy career from 1917-1977 with trips to the mountains of Colorado and Montana and the coasts and harbors of Massachusetts, Maine, Oregon and California. He spent a year studying painting at the New Hope Impressionist Colony in Pennsylvania, which inspired him to paint other beautiful places along the eastern seashore and New England. Traveling as far north as Alaska to capture the crisp unspoiled tundra panoramas, he was never inconvenienced by the distance or uncomfortable conditions of what he referred to as the "great out-of-doors." His most frequent travels were however throughout the West and Southwest.

With its brilliant light and colors and enigmatic desert vistas, the Southwest was one of his most favorite places to paint. The cultural vitality of the native population of New Mexico and Arizona as well as the thought of collaborating with other talented artists seduced Dunbier with the promise of creative stimulus. While studying at the Chicago Art Institute in 1916, he was easily persuaded by artist Walter Ufer to make his first summer trip to Taos. Dunbier along with his artist friend and fellow Nebraskan, Robert Gilder, became the first Nebraska artist to paint regularly in the Southwest. He once remarked that he was spending his summer going to "Indian country to can some of the great out-of-doors, bring it back here and sell it to these birds who look at the world through green eye shades."

Dunbier's painting has been analyzed extensively for its technical qualities. Although he rejected artistic labels, his preferred manner has been described broadly as impressionistic in style and subject. By reason of his use of vibrant color schemes with their sensitivity to values of light, which are the most obvious features of his work, Dunbier has been labeled a "colorist." As a dedicated teacher he would often tell his students to "be aware of the shadow family and the light family. Without light, there is no color." His fervent belief in rendering pictures with an "active brush" completely alla prima and in plein-aire (painting as quickly as possible in one sitting while outdoors) also identifies him as an impressionist.

One could maintain that he painted his landscapes with the same ethos that he treated his portraits, each work reflecting the inner personality of the subject. In 1994, his son Roger Dunbeir (1934-1998) wrote "His perseverance was based upon respect for the integrity of the landscape as registered by his eye and sensed through what he called "vibrations." It is these intangible qualities which are so often difficult to express and describe in words that speak to you in a language of brushwork, color, light and splendid composition.

While color is the most direct and deliberate element on his canvases, his masterful arrangement of objects within the composition is also commendable. To achieve the appropriate milieu, color was not enough; Dunbier is interested in the important location of individual components. Akin to ordering a still life, the placement of features within a landscape appears to be intentional in order to render a composition that achieves aesthetic balance and conveys the true essence of place. In the lovely 1954 painting "Bay State Grey Day" Dunbier arranged a wonderful seaside still life. He creates a radial focal area by placing in the center of the composition a diminutive sailboat with tall white sails against a blue ocean background. This arrangement pulls your attention to the true subject of the piece, which is the bay surrounded by cape cod-style homes, beach cottages and fishing shacks. If we were to eliminate the boat from its central position, the harmony of this picturesque scene would be lost. Though the scene conveys the sense of activity, the quite fishing village contains no visible figures depicted. These compositional additions and subtractions are reflections of Dunbier's talent as a craftsman and designer.

When Dunbier spoke of the "spirit of the outdoors" he not only used the terms of mood and key in reference to color but also orchestration and harmony in reference to form and design. He applied a broad vocabulary of artistic methods to achieve his compositions and often subscribed to nonconformist conceptual notions of how to paint. "I paint all kinds of abstractions... I don't paint trees and grass alone. I paint mood and feeling." In a 1939 review of an exhibition at the Joslyn Memorial Art Gallery, Nebraska artist and writer Leonard Thiessen (1902-1989) wrote that Dunbier's new landscapes "were hard to analyze." Commenting on the surface application of his paint Thiessen said, "Dunbier's craftsmanlike touch in applying oil paint is always worth close inspection, even by those who have grown a bit weary of the impressionist conception of what a landscape should be."

Dunbier was an artist of true contradictions; the notion of painting an abstraction would seem to challenge his reasoned doctrine for he distrusted modern manifestations of this form. He never subscribed to any true school of art and although his paintings were always representational, he stressed the concept that every painting was an abstraction stating "visual reality is made of abstractions, never the reverse." In spite of his intellectual understanding of the conceptual nature of art, he advocated a traditional appreciation attacking the modern achievements of the time as "screw ball art." This respected artist and teacher continued to paint in the "picture manner" an unfashionable but appreciated and easily understood style favored by the more conservative public of his time. Due to what was perceived as his lack of originality, critics viewed him simply as a regional artist and failed to recognize the diversity of his subjects and the fine subtle melange of his style.

Considered today as one of America's most notable impressionists, Dunbier was on the verge of critical acclaim, but never secured a national reputation during his lifetime. "No, I haven't made a lot of money," he once said during an interview, "But when I have gone to my reward, I will be just as happy as though I had. I've traveled further and had more fun than some of those who are sitting on their millions. And I don't give a damn who likes my paintings, this is the world I'm living in, and I'm trying to enjoy living in it."

The Museum of Nebraska Art would like to thank James May (former MONA curator) and Lonnie Pierson Dunbier (Augustus's Dunbier's daughter-in-law) for their assistance with this exhibition.


Biography of Augustus W. Dunbier

Augustus William Dunbier was born in Polk County, Nebraska in 1888. He was a prolific painter who became one of early Nebraska's most successful and influential artists. He was a tall, pipe smoking, angular man with a unique sense of humor and an ability to tell many entertaining stories. He had a brazen personality with contentious and oftentimes contradicting views on politics, religion, life and especially art. He had as many followers as enemies in the art community, which he diligently cultivated. His fellow Nebraskans viewed him as a maverick because of his personal style and sophisticated attitude. He wore a diamond stickpin, carried a walking stick, and kissed the ladies' hands.

At age sixteen his family moved to Germany and he received a classical training in the "dark manner" of the old masters during his studies at the Royal Academy in Dusseldorf. During his developing years, Impressionism was becoming the advanced style and Dunbier's love of color moved him to adopt this manner. While in Europe he became of friend of the famous surrealist Max Ernst. In 1915 Dunbier returned to America and served in the U.S. Army. After World War I, he painted in New York with George Luks and fellow Nebraskan artist Robert Henri experimenting in the Ashcan manner, and Robert Spencer with whom he spent time at the New Hope Impressionist Colony in Pennsylvania. While attending the Chicago Art Academy for one year, he became a friend with Walter Ufer and Eanger. I. Couse, which led to his membership in the exclusive Salmagundi Club in New York. It was during this time that he began making his annual excursions to the Southwest.

He lived most of his life in Omaha where he became a well-established portrait painter and private teacher. In 1932, after being married once before, Dunbier married one of his students, Miss Louise "Lulu" Ekstrom. The two artists maintained studios in their Omaha home and became a popular "art couple."

There were certain pioneering aspects that contributed to his unique career. He was the first Nebraska-born painter to earn his living solely from his art. Of these, he was the most academically trained and his career from 1915-1977 was long and uninterrupted. He taught, lectured and demonstrated throughout Nebraska and judged art shows throughout the Midwest. He was talented in other areas, successfully undertaking complicated restoration projects for many museums, designing easels, paint boxes and hand carving frames. At the time of his death, Dunbier's career had spanned well over half of the period of Nebraska's statehood. When he died, many of his loyal students, who were also his friends, mourned this beloved and respected teacher.

Paintings by Augustus Dunbier are in numerous museum collections including the Joslyn Museum of Art in Omaha, the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney, and the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln and in many private and corporate collections. He has been the subject of numerous articles in publications such as Southwest Art, Western Art Digest and Art in America.

Read more about Augustus W. Dunbier and see many images of his art in this magazine.

Read more about the Museum of Nebraska Art in Resource Library Magazine.

For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/3/11

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.