Sunday, January 7, 2018

Dennis Miller Bunker - An American in Medfield

Dennis Miller Bunker, The Brook at Medfield, 1889 (one of several versions of this motif)

Though his life would be tragically cut short just six years later, Dennis Miller Bunker at the age of 23 was one of the most promising of the young American Impressionists who sprang up in Boston toward the end of the 19th century. Bunker and other Boston painters mentored by William Morris Hunt - including Tarbell, Childe Hassam, Wm. Merrit Chase, and Frank Benson, became avid disciples of Monet. Collectively they’re referred to as the “Boston School.”
Bunker learned Impressionism from John Singer Sargent in England and while spending a summer painting with Monet. But in 1889, when Bunker couldn’t afford to return to England with Sargent, his patron Isabella Steward Gardner (who’d lost a young son, who had he lived would have been Bunker’s age) recommended the young man go and see Medfield, Mass.  

Medfield had already been immortalized after George Inness moved there with his family and began painting it around 1860. It was there, a few years later, that Inness, moved by the onset of the Civil War, created his first great, fully realized spiritual visions of the American landscape, paintings that would eventually give birth to the Tonalist movement, including his celebrated Peace and Plenty.

George Inness, Clearing Up (Medfield)
Isabella was in the habit of taking Boston socialites there for parties and concerts at the summer cottage of her friend Charles Martin Loeffler, a well-known composer and concertmaster for the BSO. Bunker fell in love with the place and, while staying at a congenial boarding house, painted dozens of canvases over the the summers of ’89 and ’90, his most productive years ever.

You can see examples of these paintings at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Boston Athenaeum, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The public saw the first of Bunker's Medfield paintings in 1890. 

Dennis Miller Bunker, The Pool, Medfield, 1889 or '90
A reviewer for the Boston Evening Transcript wrote: "The skies are represented only by reflection in these interesting freaks of painting and they may be classified as bold and original experiments in the representation to that eternal phenomenon which possesses such a powerful fascination for all painters—sunlight."*

Dennis Miller Bunker, The Brook at Medfield
Those words are still true today. Bunker’s paintings of the brook at Medfield are unlike anything else of the time and instantly recognizable as his own. 

Dennis Miller Bunker, The Brook at Medfield, 1889/90
Evidently, he went at this most humble and ordinary subject with the same intensity of observation and execution that Monet lavished on his haystacks and Giverney. To my mind this is what makes Bunker's Medfield paintings seem so much more “American” than the more conspicuously European-influenced landscapes and parlor pieces of his Boston School peers (Tarbell and Hassam especially).

Dennis Miller Bunker, The Pool, Medfield, 1889
I was reminded of Bunker’s Medfield brook paintings when I cropped a photo that I snapped of work a friend showed me by contemporary Cornwall landscapist John Brenton (I’d classify his work a kind of neo-Impressionism). It’s going to be the starting point for a lesson on palette knife painting in my every-other-Wednesday painting classes in Exeter, NH and Lowell, Mass. 

The composition of the entirety of Brenton's painting, compared to Bunker's, is more conventional:

Meanwhile, I’m in touch with the Medfield Historical Society to see if the exact location of Bunker’s brook still exists. If so, I foresee a field trip this summer!

Dennis Miller Bunker, The Brook at Medfield, 1889
*My source for the historical background on Bunker and Medfield is town historian Richard deSorgher, writing for the Medfield Patch


David Temple of the Medfield Historical Society has informed me that plenty of farmland and marshy grounds still exist in Medfield, all equally likely locations for Bunker's endeavors. According to him, there's a great book on Bunker by Erica Hirschler that I need to get hold of and which may well yield more info. Temple suggested that wherever Bunker painted would have to have been in walking or bicycling distance from where he was staying. He told me that although Hirschler believes Bunker boarded at 109 Main St., Medfield, the large c.1800 Goldthwaite family farmhouse that's there would be an unlikely candidate for a boarding house. According to Medfield historian Richard DeSorgher, Charles Martin Loeffler (Isabella Gardner's Medfield connection) was renting a cottage at 661 Main St., and Bunker stayed next door at Sewell's Tannery Farm, which is still there, at 663 Main St., "just before the vast open meadows of the Charles River." That sounds like the right place to look for Bunker's "brook." According to DeSorgher, Bunker wrote to Gardner: "You should see the Charles River, it has dwindled almost to a brook—and has lost all its Boston character. It is very charming—like a little English river—or rather a little like an English river. It runs here through the most lovely meadows, very properly framed in pine forests and low familiar looking hills — 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. … The calmness of everything here — its roughness and simplicity is to me most charming and restful — and I feel more happy and in better courage." Sounds like marching orders to me - come summer, that is.



  1. Bunker's landscapes are gorgeous and exciting. Thanks for writing about him. He had some great friends and mentors, and the excerpt from his letter above almost could have been written last summer.

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