Fads, fashion and fancy are all reflected in the historic art that is of interest to people today. And just like art itself, the study of art history is subject to change over time.

One of the sea changes in the field in the last twenty years has been the re-evaluation of the Impressionist paintings created in this country in the late nineteenth century. American Impressionism had previously been considered second-rate when compared to the contemporary painting of France, an assessment that provided a rationale for historians to ignore it. The market for homegrown Impressionism, however, has proved relentless since the 1970s, and speculators have sent the market value of such paintings soaring. At the same time, historians who specialize in the period, always hungry for new topics, have been researching and documenting an ever-increasing list of worthwhile artists.

Given all that attention, it was only a matter of time before increased scholarly emphasis would be placed on the life and work of a long-forgotten Boston painter named Dennis Miller Bunker. Sure enough, Dennis Miller Bunker, American Impressionist, a traveling exhibition that originated at the Boston Museum of the Fine Arts, has now arrived at the Denver Art Museum.

Not only did Bunker leave behind an impressive body of work that includes some of the oldest Impressionist paintings created in the United States, but his biography reads like a romantic novel. Born to a wealthy suburban New York family, Bunker was a child prodigy. In 1876, at age fifteen, he was already enrolled at the Art Student's League; by age nineteen, he would see his work included in the prestigious annual exhibit presented by the National Academy of Design. And it's a good thing he found such ready success--he was dead from meningitis within ten years.

After leaving New York to study in Paris with the legendary Jean-Leon Gerome, Bunker accepted a teaching job at Boston's Cowles Art School in 1885. Fame and glamour greeted the handsome and talented painter, and he was immediately accepted into the highest ranks of the city's then formidable art scene. Bunker was also embraced by the wealthy society crowd in town, whose members eagerly snapped up his pictures. Notable in this latter group was renowned art patron Isabella Stewart Gardner, who later established a museum in Boston from which some of the best paintings in this show have been loaned.

Bunker created several distinct bodies of work, as well as some paintings that seem essentially unlike any others (what else he may have done is hard to say, since more than half of his documented work has been lost over the years). And according to the selections included here, Bunker embraced techniques that anticipated his later espousal of Impressionism long before he went to France--and long before he developed what was apparently a more-than-close personal relationship with famous East Coast artist John Singer Sargent.

In a painting that Bunker started while he was still a teenager, "Dories on a Beach" (1880-82), the row of trees in the background is astoundingly abstract, having been created economically with little more than some smeary brush work. "Tree" (1884-85) demonstrates how Bunker held to his concept that a picture can be made up of blobs of color used to convey the play of light and shadow--this despite French academic training that stressed detailed rendering.

Bunker's Impressionism culminates with his paintings of flowers, especially the tiny and exquisite "Yellow Roses" of 1886 and his monumental 1888 masterpiece, "Chrysanthemums." During the time that Bunker was painting these Impressionist works, he was also painting traditional and academic portraits, closely associated with the contemporaneous work of Sargent. The subjects of these portraits are the scions of Boston society--in particular, members of the Gardner family.

The acceptance by wealthy people of Bunker's work made his short life far different from the starving artists of legend. But a more lasting sign of the financial support his paintings received is the collection of period gilt frames that surround them--serious works of art worth a show all by themselves.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia