Robert Spear Dunning (1829-1905)

Robert Spear Dunning (1829-1905)

Robert Spear Dunning grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts, and was best known in his lifetime as a painter of bountiful still lifes; the New England landscapes he produced are rare today. In a letter to Robert C. Vose dated December 12, 1901, Dunning related his history:

Dear friend Robert: . . .I was born in the town of Brunswick Maine, Jan 3d 1829, moved to Fall River Mass. at the age of six years, and have resided there ever since…[I] took a studio and began to paint portraits, landscapes, and figures. About 1864 took up the painting of still life and fruit pictures and was very successful in receiving large prices… [1]

[1] Excerpt from letter found in Vose Galleries’ archives.

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Dunning studied under Daniel Huntington at the National Academy of Design from 1849 to 1852, before returning to Fall River to open a studio, first concentrating on portraits and landscapes. He often sought reprieve from the bustle of the textile mills of his industrial home town and his scenes of Newport and the White Mountains of New Hampshire attest to his many travels. Dunning’s Thornton, New Hampshire captures the rolling green hills and farmlands of the New Hampshire scenery he discovered on these trips.

Around 1865, Dunning largely abandoned landscape painting to devote himself entirely to the more profitable genre of still life. His methods focused on strong color, accuracy of detail and sensitivity to the treatment of textures, and locals recalled how he made sure the Fall River grocers reserved the best pieces of fruit for him. With fellow painter John E. Grouard, Dunning established the Fall River Evening Drawing School in 1870, passing on his still life techniques to many students and followers including Bryant Chapin, Franklin H. Miller and Abbie Luella Zuill, among others. Dunning exhibited at the National Academy, the Boston Art Club and the American Art Union, and today his work can be found in the collections of the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Currier Museum of Art, the Wichita Art Museum, and the Fall River Public Library.

References See Groce and Wallace; William H. Gerdts, Painters of the Humble Truth: Masterpieces of American Still Life 1801-1939 (Columbia, MO: Philbrook Art Center, 1981); See also Exhibition of Paintings, Drawings and Unfinished Work of Robert S. Dunning (Fall River Public Library, 1911); Obituaries in Fall River News and Fall River Daily Globe, August 14, 1905.

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