Editor's note: The following essay, with notes, was rekeyed and reprinted on March 18, 2004 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of the author, Lonnie Dunbier. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the author through AskArt.com.


Augustus Dunbier: Paint for the Love of Color

by Lonnie Dunbier

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Augustus William Dunbier was born January 1, 1888 on a pioneer farm near Shelby in Polk County, Nebraska. It was the winter of the famous "Blizzard of '88" and so cold in their "soddie" that he survived by being shuttled between the beds of his mother and the servant girl.

He credited a family trip from Polk County to the 1888 Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha as being a life-changing experience because of seeing real paintings for the first time. His own art talent was apparent in those days. Local teacher, O.D. Eaten, told his parents that the school could no longer "do anything with Augustus" because "he drew all over his book, his assignment papers could not be read for faces; that an ivy-covered hall would be just another place to mark up. The boy was compelled to draw and if he weren't allowed, the Dunbiers were in for trouble" (1).

In 1903, Augustus' father, Louis, then age 77, sold all but one farm and packed the family to return to the Old Country to a small town near Cologne. There an uncle was Bishop of a Cathedral and taught Dunbier about church art. In 1907, Dunbier gained admittance to Germany's Royal Academy at Dusseldorf, where he spent the next seven years. The first three years were devoted entirely to draftsmanship, with no color allowed in the classroom. When he was allowed to chose a painting professor, he settled on Adolf Munzer, a well-known Impressionist. Although the style most commonly associated with Dunbier's name has been Impressionism, he never used the term to describe his own work.

In 1914, World War I was beginning, and Dunbier was caught between worlds with family and allegiances on each side, but he opted to be an American and booked passage. In 1914/15, he enrolled for the winter term at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and was in the advanced atelier of Wellington J. Reynolds from whom he took figure and portrait painting. He also became a good friend and admirer of Walter Ufer, a master draftsman and painter on the Institute faculty, and subsequently known as one of the Taos Founders in New Mexico. Returning to Omaha, in 1916, Dunbier shared a studio at 15th and Farnam Streets with William Carl Stuve, a young musician.

The war, however, would not leave him alone, and he served in the Camouflage Corps, 97th Engineers. He was discharged as a private at Chevy Chase, Maryland on January 6, 1919, and shortly after established a second studio in Omaha. But he soon left and spent a year painting with his friend, Robert Spencer, at the artist colony in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Roger Dunbier thought this time at New Hope with Spencer probably had more influence than any other single factor on his father's painting style. "He went into the dumps in a big way when he learned of Spencer's suicide in 1931."

Following his stay at New Hope, Dunbier spent much of 1920 socializing and painting on the East Coast. Several of his associates according to a calendar and address book he kept at that time were those men called Social Realists, or Ash Can School artists -- Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Bellows, and George Luks. Dunbier had met Luks through Walter Ufer.

Edith, Dunbier's portrait of an obviously distinguished and proud black lady, was exhibited in 1921 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts annual exhibition. The model was Theresa Brooks, an Omaha mulatto girl, and the title, according to Roger Dunbier, came from the artist's "ornery-turn-of mind" relative to his deep resentment of the racist attitudes of President Woodrow Wilson and his wife, Edith. The painting is in the collection of the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney.

In 1922, Dunbier married Augusta Mengedodt, and they lived in her family home at 1617 Wirt Street where he had a large studio. That same year he made his first trip to Taos, which was at the invitation of Walter Ufer. From that time, these two artists had a pattern of painting together every summer until Ufer's death in 1936. Dunbier's model, Cristino Mirabal "Deer Track Up," born about 1887, was the brother of Ufer's model, Jim Mirabal and in 1959, Cristino became Governor of the Taos Pueblo.

Other special painting friends in Taos were John Young-Hunter, Oscar Berninghouse, and Eanger I Couse, who, in 1923, along with Ufer, successfully sponsored Dunbier's membership in the Salmagundi Club in New York. It was also the first year of the remainder of his life he was mentioned in "Who's Who in American Art.

In these years, Dunbier's career took off. He was lauded for the popularity of his YMCA art classes and had good sales of paintings. In 1925, he was named "Outstanding Nebraska Painter" by a jury of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. But he exerted little effort to polish an image of Mid-western respectability. His German ties certainly made him suspect, something he could not fix, but he made no attempt to suppress his anti-cleric views and certainly didn't respond satisfactorily when clergymen railed against him for using nude models.

His free-spirited reputation did not endear him to his wife or her family, and by 1926, Augustus and Augusta were divorcing. That summer the artist went to Alaska with the title of official railroad photographer, thanks to a friend who knew Dunbier's true intent for traveling northward. Not surprising, he returned with a trunk full of paintings and no photographs.

At the conclusion of this first trip, he had special exhibitions of his twenty-two canvases at the Seattle and the San Francisco Art Associations, and then at the Art Institute Gallery in the Aquila Court building in Omaha. He was getting national attention, and a writer for the Omaha World Herald asked on October 26, 1926: "Is Omaha big enough and broad enough to hold a man of Mr. Dunbier's talent"? He began yearly exhibitions at the Salmagundi Club in New York, and his entry in 1927 was A Gray Day in Alaska, obviously from his recent travels (2).

In 1928, Dunbier had returned to Alaska and the Pacific Northwest as well as to Taos and had made his first painting trips to Arizona. His ever-newsworthy personal life got more public attention when it was announced that he had quietly married Lulu Ekstrom, age 26, in San Bernadino, California, They honeymooned for two months, and when she returned home mid-September, the story of the bride's arrival in Omaha by airplane got celebrity-status coverage. A prominent two-column article with photo of the new bride was a front-page story of the Evening World Herald of September 16.

In the newspaper interview, she was quoted as saying that her flight home was "made possible through the sale of one of Dunbier's newest paintings to a Hollywood movie star". Reflecting his then attitudes about painting Nebraska subjects, she said he would remain in California for several more months because "there is nothing here in Nebraska for him to paint. Out there he has a wealth of material. And greater possibilities of selling the paintings, too." Lou remained her husband's most loyal fan. A reporter for Metro magazine in Omaha wrote on March 4, 1976 of a studio interview with the couple: "While he was speaking Lou looked at him with the pride and love, like a girl looking at the young man she is planning to marry".

Many people grew to revere this artist, especially his students. A Dundee Sun newspaper interview with Dunbier, October 3, 1957, stated that: "The artist is noted among Omaha art circles for his devoted students. Mr. Dunbier maintains a small, select group of students at all times," many who remained with him over twenty years. At one point, every high school teacher in Omaha had taken lessons from Dunbier as well as hundreds of othersIn January, 1934, he became a WPA artist, and the $42.50 he received each week for thirty hours of teaching in the federal government program to support artists insured food on the table.

In his classes, he held to the idea that art was a serious subject and was disdainful of anyone who described themselves as self-taught, saying "it meant they took lessons from an ignorant fool."

He taught as many classes as he could possibly handle, some in the evenings at the YMCA and the Jewish Community Center and some from his home studio at 49th Avenue and Izard streets. Word of mouth provided full enrollments, and he never advertised. For many years, he taught a figure class at Joslyn Museum, and his most popular classes were the "plein air" painting adventures where it was required that participants finish their paintings on location.

With reasonably good weather, he and his students would be off to some Missouri or Elkhorn River bluff or ox bow lake to capture the largesse of the "great-out-of-doors." He was anxious that his students take full advantage of what nature had to offer that day and to work as quickly as possible to capture it.

Dunbier never started a landscape in the studio, seldom worked up a larger landscape from sketches, and never -- heaven forbid -- from a photograph. He said, "photographs are maps. After you have copied it, you have another map. I get no emotional charge from a map" (3). He often painted along with his students, and one of them, Natalie Robinson, reminisced in an article about her mentor in Southwest Art magazine, March 1989:

I shall never forget that tall figure circulating amongst his students gesticulating with his pipe as he commented on our work, politics, painting, the deficiencies of present-day art, and the world in general. Even when he painted with us, as he often did, his tweed jacket never received a spot of paint and miraculously even his fingers stayed clean, while all the students managed to cover themselves with paint.

Another of his long-time students, Jane Scott, wrote of his field trip teaching methods: "When we arrived at the landscape spot that we had chosen, we would each set up, and Gus would stop at each easel to see that everyone got started right. I still remember many of the comments Gus would make as we painted: "You want to paint the mood of the day. Painting is like music, you need to orchestrate it. If it's a rainy day, paint the silvery effect of the day. If it's a sunny day, paint the warm effect of the light. . .It's a matter of attitude, you manipulate the colors in order to create the mood" (4).

For years, he conducted workshops around the state in places including Norfolk, Grand Island, North Platte, McCook, Broken Bow, Kearney, and Fremont. Interestingly there is no mention of him professionally in Lincoln, likely because of the distance those two cities have historically kept from each other in matters political, social, and cultural. Also he may not have been welcomed because of his vocal disapproval of the University of Nebraska Art Department, which he perceived as a place where students were pressured to paint "abstractions" and to forego the basics. But then, he also said the same things about the Art Department at the University of Omaha.

He also lambasted against what he called "perfect saccharine real-but-unreal landscapes." Between this style and the prevalent modernist movements, he fell somewhere in between. He said: "I paint all kinds of abstractions . . . I don't paint trees and grass alone. I paint mood and feeling. I paint sunshine burning into your back. Or the time of day. Or falling shadows. Or the feeling of bitter cold in winter" (5).

Another dimension to the artist's career and in many respects the "bread and butter" was commissioned portrait painting. For several decades, he and J. Laurie Wallace were Nebraska's most sought after portrait painters, and when Wallace died in 1953, Dunbier basically "carried the banner" for the next twenty or so years. His portraits were commissioned throughout the state and are owned by many Nebraska families.

Because of their son Roger's enrollment in Oxford University in England, his father and mother spent a year in Europe. When Roger settled in Phoenix, Arizona in 1962, the couple began spending three to four months of most winters there. Dunbier painted the desert prolifically, selling both straight off the easel and through galleries in Tucson and Scottsdale.

Of his father, Roger said: "Always from his travels, he returned to Nebraska, the place that had nurtured him from the beginning and which he, in turn, greatly enriched by depicting its beauty. For Augustus Dunbier, who seldom spoke of aesthetics, ugly was something to overcome or leave to others if they chose that route. He did not."

Augustus Dunbier died September 11, 1977, at age 89. He was buried in Omaha at West Lawn Cemetery with five of his students as pallbearers.


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