Augustus W. Dunbier | Paint For the Love of Color

Sunday Afternoon by Augustus Dunbier. painting, southwest art.
Sunday Afternoon by Augustus Dunbier

The following article is excerpted from Augustus W. Dunbier: Paint for the Love of Color, by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier (the artist’s daughter-in-law) and Marcia Kmack. An exhibit of the same name is on view through July 22 at the Phippen Museum, Prescott, AZ. Dunbier Paints the Southwest, an exhibit at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Canyon, TX, is on view June 23-August 18.

For 61 years, Augustus W. Dunbier had a studio in Omaha, NE, but traveled continuously, seldom missing a season in the Southwest and getting regularly to the East and West coasts and the Rocky Mountains. In his early career in Omaha, he asserted that landscape away from Nebraska was more interesting. But as he painted more and more, he became increasingly committed to his native state. In later years, he told his family that painting with [fellow Nebraska artist] Robert Gilder caused him to appreciate the potential of the Nebraska landscape. He had numerous recollections of the two of them together at their field easels in the snow of Fontanelle Park or overlooking a river bluff.

Although the style most commonly associated with Dunbier’s name has been Impressionism, he never used the term to describe his own work. He was in Europe at the time this style was coming to the forefront, and most knowledgeable viewers would categorize his work as being of that school, but he avoided the label.

He also lambasted against what he called “perfect saccharine real-but-unreal landscapes.” Between [abstract expressionism] 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 the winter.” It was this kind of passion that inspired his many students and held them so closely to him.

By the end of Dunbier’s career, the majority of his landscapes—numbering well over a thousand—were painted in Nebraska, where he celebrated his love of the hills and trees, lakes and rivers, farm scenes and cityscapes. He called it the “Great Out-of-Doors”—probably, according to [his son] Roger, his father’s “favorite four-word combination.”

But his love of Nebraska did not distract him from visiting and revisiting just about every corner of North America. He painted the mountains of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado; the coasts and harbors of Texas, Florida, Massachusetts, Oregon and California; and the deserts of New Mexico, Mexico, and Arizona. From 1956 to 1970, he spent all but two winters painting landscapes in and around Tucson and Phoenix, which meant a diminishment of his popular Nebraska snow scenes.

Dunbier was a man of considerable paradox. Born into a virtually all-while world, he nonetheless took great pleasure in his association with Indians, Negroes, and Mexicans (words of his era.) Growing up speaking both English and German, he spent 50 years trying to learn Spanish, a feat far from accomplished. He would cuss in Spanish but was allergic to rough language in English. He made a hundred gallons of wine every year but seldom drank. He was a political liberal but lambasted every Democratic candidate for president except Harry Truman. Anti-war, he was a member of the American Legion; vociferously anti-cleric, he was buried with a Christian ceremony and eulogized by a good friend, Father William Kelley, a former president of Jesuit Marquette University.

Handsome and courtly, he was 6 feet 1 inch, wore a diamond stick pin and huge hand-crafted New Mexico turquoise ring; he kissed the ladies’ hands and had myriads of female admirers, many of them students. A former child model, C.L. Kraft, described him as “the most handsome man you ever saw. He had a thick mustache and wore spates and a beret. He carried a fancy walking stick.” Yet, once he settled down, he had no general reputation as a playboy.

With Lou Eckstrom, a former student, he settled into 45 years of marriage, described by many as exceptionally close and faithful and ending only with his death. Lou was one of 10 children of Swedish immigrants, Carl and Alma Swanson, who farmed nearly 600 acres of land near Newman Grove, NE. As a high-school student she came to Omaha to live with an older sister and then worked as a secretary, took art classes, and modeled for her future husband.

Their son, Roger, remembered their home life as happy and stimulating, with his mother and father working closely together to create an atmosphere that combined hospitality and creativity. The guest book of the Dunbier studio in their house has hundreds of names, many well known in Nebraska and elsewhere. And there’s more than one story of Lou hiding a particularly good painting “now you don’t want to sell that,” she’d say—because she treasured both her husband and his work.

Featured in June 2001