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Harvey Dunn (1884-1952)
Middle Border Museum

Class notes of Dunn student

Bud Plant Illustrated Books

Biggs Museum of American Art

WWI Poster

Spanish galleon

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Harvey Dunn's The Prairie is My Garden is the unofficial state painting of South Dakota.

In the spring of 1880, William Dunn filed a claim south of Manchester, South Dakota and then returned to Wisconsin.  On Christmas Day, 1881, he was married to Bersha (ages 24/18).

They spent the next two years in a 7'x9' hut of crude lumber and sod,  saving enough to build a 12'x16' house with a small attic.   It was here that Harvey Thomas Dunn was born March 7, 1884.

(The Dunns were acquainted with the Ingalls family of nearby De Smet.  A 1902 quilting bee photo shows Bersha Dow Dunn with three of her sisters and Grace Ingalls Dow, sister of Laura Ingalls Wilder.)

A drouth cycle of 1886-97 devastated crops, but William stuck it out and in 1887 he paid the $4.00 balance on their homestead; the transaction was registered in Watertown by D. T. Bramble.

At the one-room school Harvey sketched endlessly on blackboard, drawing oxen, flowers, cottonwoods, locomotives; the teacher had to hide the chalk box. In the evenings Harvey and his mother sketched together by light of kerosene lamp.

In 1901 (17 yrs. old) Harvey entered SD Agricultural College (SDSU).  There were less than 250 students and fewer than 3 dozen faculty members. Harvey received C's, D's and F's in everything except art (A's). Miss Ada B. Caldwell encouraged him and suggested he attend Chicago Institute of Art.  He finally convinced his parents and left for Chicago never to live in South Dakota again.

Dunn arrived in Chicago in late fall of 1902.  He found lodging in a run-down hotel (condemned firetrap) for $3-$4 month. The $17.50 to enroll was the only cash he ever invested in art training. After three months a group went to discourage him.   According to them, this country hick was out of place in the big city.

Dunn worked as a janitor in winter and as a farm hand during summer.  He stayed in Chicago two years (1902-04) and made the transition from farm boy to man-of-the-world.   It was during this time that he started courting Tulla Krebs, daughter of the owner of Krebs Pigment and Chemical Company.

In 1904 he went to study with Howard Pyle (see Unit 5) in Wilmington, Delaware. Pyle, the foremost illustrator of the day, was sharing his knowledge and experience with a small, select group of students.  Dunn spent two years at Wilmington and at Pyle's summer studio at Chadd's Ford, Penn.

In 1906 (22 yrs. old) Dunn began his professional career and was an immediate success.   He presented his work to buyers in Philadelphia and New York, soon becoming a businessman earning $10,000/year. He illustrated for "Harper’s," "Colliers" and "Post."

Dunn rejected "art for art's sake" (as sensible as "beefsteak for beefsteak's sake"); he applied the same drive to succeed with a palette and a brush as that which motivated his parents to survive and prosper on the prairie.

Dunn married Tulla Krebs in 1908.

He was a hard worker.  Buyers knew they could depend on him for good work and punctual delivery.  When he was given one week to produce three sketches, he had the sketches AND completed paintings ready overnight.  He once completed 55paintings in 11 weeks.

1914 - Dunn moved to Leonia, New Jersey across Hudson River from Bronx

I915 - Dunn established with Charles Chapman the Leonia School of Illustration to help aspiring young artists. Tuition was.$l5/month; they sold supplies at cost.

1917 - Dunn was 33 years old with 3 children.

The W.W.I Pictorial Publicity Division of the Committee on Public Relations (headed by Charles Dana Gibson) accepted eight volunteers, including Dunn.   He produced more than 700 pictures of the war.  Dunn roamed front lines, depicting war as it actually was.  He used a scroll drawing pad; played harmonica.  Most of his war paintings are now in the Smithsonian.  Dunn envisioned years of painting a pictorial record of the war for the government; it was a big heartbreak when he returned to the U. S. in 1919 and was discharged the same year.

Dunn then devoted more time to teaching.  He taught a philosophy of life more than art.

When he was past 40 he returned to South Dakota.  He came back almost every summer for quarter century after that.  Dunn wandered around in work clothes and a slouch hat; he stopped to chat and tell stories; he worked on threshing crews, he sketched but seldom painted.

His commercial art continued - Maxwell House Coffee, Coke, White Trucks, Texaco, Sinclair, John Hancock Insurance - but he devoted more and more time to pictures of frontier life in South Dakota.

Aubrey Sherwood (publisher of Kingsbury Co. News) met Dunn in mid-1920s.  In 1950 he visited Dunn's studio; "I wish the folks back home could see what I have seen."

They organized a show in Brookings; at the end of the exhibit Dunn donated the 42 paintings to the people of South Dakota.  They are now displayed in the South Dakota Art Museum on the campus of SDSU in Brookings.

Dunn died Oct. 29, 1952.

He preached to students, "If your life is full, you will paint full pictures. If it is empty, your pictures will be empty, too."

Every picture came from within him.

"How long to make a picture?" someone once asked.
"Oh, about 2 weeks - and 40 years."


One of the many pleasures of small-town South Dakota is walking into a city library and discovering Harvey Dunn paintings on the walls.


Information from:
Karolevitz, Robert F. (1969), The Prairie is My Garden  (Aberdeen SD: North Plains Press).
"Inspired by Manchester." John Miller. South Dakota Magazine (July/August 1993)