Augustus William Dunbier came into this world with the new year, January 1, 1888. His place of birth was a pioneer farm near the town of Shelby in Polk County, Nebraska. It was a famous winter, so cold that the newborn was shuttled between the beds of his mother and a servant girl in order to insure his survival. His Rhineland German parents named their son for the Kaiser's second son, Augustus Wilhelm, who was born the previous summer.
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Louis and his father, the artist's grandfather, had immigrated to the Great Plains to obtain the kind of land unavailable to them in Europe. They were the first to put the plow to that particular piece of prairie and achieved enough success in farming and horse breeding to bring over from the old country several former neighbors and relatives. The young boy, Augustus, had an alltogether happy early childhood among these newcomers and other pioneer and immigrant settlers on the Nebraska frontier. Many years later, he particularly loved to recount his youthful adventures and misadventures with farm animals, particularly the horses.
At age ten, Augustus accompanied his parents to Omaha to see the Trans-Mississippi Exposition, an event that, as it turned out, changed his life. He saw his first art gallery. A ltttle over a year latter, events transpired that had even greater implications. His family sold most of their Nebraska property and moved back to Germany. Now, like his father and grandfather before him, he was an immigrant.
For the young man, it was a new century and a new country. He attended school, but given the difficulties of German grammar and history, his thoughts wandered. As it happened, there was a violin instructor in the vicinity, and the youngster decided that a career in music might offer possibilities in his ancestral community, Lechenich, only twenty-five kilometers from the birthplace of Beethoven. Dunbier, however, was no Beethoven, and an earlier interest in drawing led his parents to encourage their artistically inclined son to draughtsmanshlp. possibly.
The teenager set about creation of a portfolio of drawings required prior to the examinations for entrance into the famous Royal Academy at Dusseldorf. He sat for the exam in 1907, passed, and was admitted as a student. Coincidentally, this was the same year Adolf Hitler failed his art student admission exams at the Royal Academy in Vienna.
For the next seven years, Dunbier attended the Academy as a full tlme student. The reputation of Dusseldorf had been built upon history and genre painting. Students were excpected to be accomplished draughtsmen prior to working in color--a reality emphaslzed by the fact that no painting classes were offered before the fourth year of study. For a time, the young American took an interest in stained glass design and won a first prize In that discipline. However, it was the use of color and painting that really attracted him. When finally allowed to select an instructor, called 'dozent' of painting, he opted for Adolf Munzer, an impressionist who worked with Dunbier for three years, becoming a friend as well as teacher. Most importantly, he began painting on his own or joining with other students In 'plein-aire' work away from the Academy.
As the year 1914 began, everything was much as it had been for the American art student. As it ended, almost everything had changed. The principal European powers had thrown themselves into war and were calling up young men for service in what was fast becoming a protracted bloody conflict of trenches and barbed wire.
As an officially neutral U.S. citizen, Augustus was, with his American accent, often disconcertingly mistaken for British, and as a long time German resident, was potentially subject for induction Into the German Army. It was time to go home.
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Omaha was not exactly home, but it was close and was certainly better than the alternative. He was quick to make friends with, among other people, painter Robert Gilder, who advised him to touch bases with some of the artists who were active in the West but made Chicago their base of operations. This he did and in that city, decided to enroll at the Art Institute where he met Walter Ufer, who promoted Dunbier on joining him in Taos. This he did in the summer of 1916, beginning a long relationship with that artistic outpost that lasted for over fifty years.
In the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the country around Taos he found that quality of light and subject matter that had lured a small coterie of painters there before him. In this mainly Spanish speaklng town. a young "plein aire" painter could, in those days, quickly come to know all the artists who with their painting gear took to the tracks radiating from this ancient crossroads. Painting outdoors can be and was a most friendship creating occupation, particularly for those in Taos who shared a European eclucatlonal experience. Almost all of the Taos painters of that era had this background. Many of them also belonged to the prestigious New York artists' association, the Salmagundi Club. Waiter Ufer suggested that Dunbier should apply for membership. Sponsorship by Ufer and Eanger I. Couse provided the necessary credentials, and his membership was secured.
Going back East, he spent a better part of a year between the Impressionist artists' colony in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and New York City. In the former location. he met and painted with, among others, Robert Spencer, a fellow Nebraska born artist. In New York, Dunbier was introduced to George Luks, painted with hlm, and virtually impoverished himself through the purchase of one of his canvases--now hanging In the Joslyn Memorial.
Returning to Omaha, he spent more time in the pursuit of the Nebraska landscape, often accompanied by Robert Gilder. The two of them could often be seen at their field easels profiled on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River. It was at this time that Dunbier began to realize that Nebraska had a great deal more to offer in natural beauty than was immediately apparent and too often was deprecated.
In the category of beauty, it was at the age of thirty that Dunbier married Augusta Mengedoht, of a prominent Omaha family. He built a studio in north Omaha at 1617 Wirt Street and embarked upon a short and, to put it mildly, not very successful career as husband. With summer, he packed up the car and his wife and set off over the almost totally unpaved, often unmarked road to Taos. Primitive conditions on the road were more than matched by similar condtions In Taos. The new bride discovered that the man she had married was more than the bilingual European educated man about town. He was also the born in a blizzard. son of sod busting pioneers, who was anything but appalled by the primitive life, Indians,"foreign" language, and eccentric characters of the New Mexico "wilderness." He loved it; she did not; he painted; she pouted and shortly found her way to Santa Fe and a train back to civilization.
Several months passed, and Aueustus reappeared in Omaha with his Taos Pueblo Indian model, Cristino Mirabel or Deer Track Up, who later became tribal governor. Cristino moved in with the newlyweds, becoming a fixture at the studio and on the Sixteenth Street streetcars he loved to ride. However, Dunbier's painting was going better than his marriage, which ended in 1927 with a very messy and publicized divorce. More than one Omaha lawyer became a considerable Dunbier collector as result of the lawsuit that went all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court with Augustus winning a considerable settlement. The wife and her "meddling mother" moved to Denver, and Dunbier went to Alaska.
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Hiring on in Seattle as a "photographer" for the Alaska Railroad, he spent a summer near the Arctic Circle, never touching the camera but returning with a steamer trunk full of paintings. He went to Texas and painted the fishing boats and street scenes of Corpus Christi. He went to the High Sierras of California where he painted with Edgar Payne and other California artists whom he had met at Taos. When Dunbier heard that the Pan-American Hlghway had been completed to Mexico City, he was on the road and, along with his friend, Don Ruf, was one of the first to reach that location by car. This journey was the first of many trips to that country, and to him the most memorable because the single road into Mexico City was closed by a landslide, necessitating his shipping the car home by sea from Vera Cruz to New Orleans.
As the years passed, he visited and revisited just about every corner of North America, painting the mountains of Montana and Colorado, the coasts and harbors of Massachusetts and Oregon, and the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona. From 1933 to 1970, he spent all but two winters painting landscapes in and around Tucson and Phoenix. An exception was 1956, a year he and Lou spent in Europe where their son was a student at Oxford University In England.
The majority of Dunbier's landscapes were, however, painted close to home. A full third of his outdoor "oeuvre," constituting of almost a thousand of his canvases, were produced in Nebraska depicting a varied scenery. It is a Nebraska of hills and trees and water, true aspects of a part of the world legendarily bereft of all three. When the libel of the Great American Desert was dlsproved, many settled for the image of an endless pancake flat stubble. punctuated perhaps by a solitary grain elevator or water tank. True, there is enough of this available for artistic interpretation but very little of it is to be found in Dunbier canvases.
At the other extreme were the perfect saccharine real-but-unreal landscapes which were anathematized by Dunbier in word and deed. His canvases are testimony to the fact that Nebraska provided more than enough excellent vistas for the trained and experienced eye without the need to either disparage or embellish. Winter and summer, spring and fall, every time of day--all are depicted in his Nebraska and Iowa landscapes. The red barns, wheat shocks and iron bridges, now of a past era, are all there, but it cannot be overemphasized that his attention to reality was never subservient to detail.
His work was directed toward capturing the intangible--season, time of day, atmospheric variables as well as actual and impending weather. In fact, the cynic may say that his weather was the most important aspect of the Nebraska scene. True, the farm boy--now master landscape painter--would have agreed and would add that it is all the more important that it be represented in paint. So, working in these uncertain elements and with the desire to capture his subject at a specific moment, he applied his paint with brush and knife vigorously and directly to a near blank canvas with only a minimal charcoal sketch outlining hls vision. This is how he set about creating his assertive canvases with their contrasting and unintimidated hues. "Paint for the love of color" he told his students. For sixty years, he practiced what he preached. Renee Hooley in the Western Art Digest, January 1987, said it as well as anybody could:
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Among the handful of early Nebraska painters who actually earned a living at their art, Dunbier saw his first dawn and last sunset in the Cornhusker State. It has been said that some eyes may have seen those corn-bordered skies longer and some few better, but no one longer and better. He painted from Alaska's tundra to the rain forests of Mexico, but always returned to those Nebraska streams lined by the trees that all educated people know don't exist there.
Augustus Dunbier died September 9, 1977, age 89.
About the Author:
From 1982, Dr. Roger Dunbier (1934-1998) combined his professional economics training, research skills, and love of art to develop an easily accessed, 'all-in-one-place' repository of factual information so that buyers and sellers of American art could make decisions based on hard-core data rather than just marketing hype. With ever-more sophisticated computers, programmed by Charles Lefebvre, his long-time associate, Dunbier built an artist record database, which by the time he died 16 years later, had 21,357 names linked to their respective auction prices, literature and biographies. Today the result of his dedication lives on as the foundation of AskART.com, an internet site since 2000.
Dunbier's innovation of computer systems began in 1963, when he pioneered computer mapping on what were then relatively primitive computers. In 1967, he utilized concepts of 'arbitrage' and 'comparables' in designing the first real estate Multiple Listing System. Its direct descendent remains in use by realtors across the United States, and he later applied the same underlying principles in building his artist database. (right: Roger Dunbier, photo courtesy Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, derived from a larger image at http://tfaoi.org/am/16am/16am17.jpg)
Dunbier was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. His interest in American art was natural because his father, Augustus Dunbier, (1888-1977) was a prominent landscape, still life and portrait painter and art teacher, whose studio and classroom were in the family home. Although Roger showed few 'right brained' skills, he did have other talents. He graduated first in his class and Summa Cum Laude from the University of Omaha in 1955 with majors in economics and history. He then received a Marshall Scholarship, which led to enrollment at Oxford University in England from 1955 to 1959. During that time, he was on the Oxford University basketball and track teams, and was a member of the British National Basketball Team. In 1961, he received a Doctorate of Philosophy, Economic Geography from Oxford. His dissertation, The Sonoran Desert, Its Geography, Economy, and People, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 1960, and subsequently used as a text book for college geography courses.
After formal education, Dunbier held full-time professorial positions for several years at the University of Omaha and the University of California-Irvine. He lived most of the remainder of his life in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona, and had economic-geography related jobs including CEO of his management consulting firm that prepared demographic and locational studies; and President of Metro Press, Inc., publisher of over 100 computer generated area directories for Metro Phoenix. In 1991, he married Lonnie Pierson of Lincoln, Nebraska.
Image bank of additional selected paintings by subject matter:
Editor's note: The above essays reprinted with permission of the authors. Images reproduced by permission of Roger and Lonnie Dunbier.
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