Dennis Miller Bunker was admired as an extraordinary talent by knowledgeable contemporaries such as John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Stanford White, and Isabella Stewart Gardner, yet it is only in the past thirty years that collectors, historians and critics have rediscovered his work. Of the 225 pictures Bunker painted during his decade-long career, only about 100 are presently known, several of which are included in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Ignored by virtually every major survey of American art, it was only with The Metropolitan’s 1973 show of American Impressionist and Realist Paintings and Drawings from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz and then with the traveling exhibition Revealed Masters: 19th Century American Art, organized by Dr. William Gerdts for the American Federation of Arts in 1974, that art critics and scholars began to reconsider Bunker’s work. In 1978, the New Britain Museum of American Art organized the first major Bunker retrospective since the 1891 memorial exhibition held at Boston’s St. Botolph Club, following Bunker’s untimely death at age 29. From his academic portraits, to his Barbizon inspired tonalist landscapes, to the unique Impressionist canvases of his final years, Bunker’s art reflects the rapidly changing artistic tastes of the tumultuous time in which he lived. Painted in 1887, the monumental Portrait of Anne Page gracefully reveals the elegance and beauty of its subject.
Born in New York City in 1861, Bunker’s artistic training began at age 15 when he enrolled in the National Academy of Design under Charles Melville Dewey. Later that year he joined the Art Student’s League and studied under William Merritt Chase, before departing for Paris in 1882. Determined to make the most of his European experience, Bunker enrolled at both the École des Beaux-Arts, a bastion of conservative French classicism, and at the Académie Julian, its more liberal counterpart. During his two years in France, Bunker perfected his skills as a draftsman in the atelier of Jean-Léon Gérôme at the École, and spent his summer holidays sketching and painting in Brittany. When his savings ran out in 1884, Bunker reluctantly left France, but he left a confirmed Francophile, and the successive developments in French art exerted a strong influence over him for the remainder of his life.
After returning to the United States Bunker moved to Boston, where he began teaching at the Cowles Art School. Although his students included artists such as William McGregor Paxton, Lila Cabot Perry and Sarah Choate Sears, he initially felt disconnected from and stifled by Boston’s conservative social climate. Bunker’s life was transformed, however, with his introduction into Boston society, an introduction which brought him into close proximity with Anne Page, as well as the prominent art patron Isabella Stewart Gardner, who later became not only a close friend but also one of the artist’s strongest supporters.
Bunker first met Anne Page in December of 1885, and afterwards remarked to a mutual friend, “She seems to have the same charm that some other of your friends have, I don’t know that I am entirely comfortable in the presence of such natures—they seem too fine for me” (Erica E. Hirshler, Dennis Miller Bunker: American Impressionist, Boston, Massachusetts, 1994, p. 46). She was the daughter of Eliza Greeley and James Hyde Page, who was headmaster of the Dwight Grammer School. After Bunker’s initial bashfulness, however, the two became acquaintances, and in September of 1886 he wrote to her, “I want to paint you awfully much, but I tremble to ask you to let me, for I know it would take me a long time to do you as I want to and I should not care a bit to do you unless I could make my best work of it. I am glad now that I didn’t commence you last winter, when I was tired out. You said that you would pose for me, but I’m afraid you tho’t I only wanted to make a study for some picture—you see I’m thinking of making you the picture" (Dennis Miller Bunker: American Impressionist, p. 46). Page agreed and Bunker started to work on her portrait in October 1886.
A driven perfectionist, Bunker was passionate about his subject and meticulous about every detail, often reworking his compositions until he was satisfied. After almost six months of work, Bunker finally completed Portrait of Anne Page in March of 1887. Seated in a chair with her hands resting gracefully in her lap, Page’s expression is introspective yet regal. With an extremely refined and precise brush, Bunker uses a palette of grays, blacks and pinks, which imbues the sitter with a loveliness mixed with a quiet resolve. As Erica Hirshler observes, Bunker “equated her clear beauty not with youthful buds, but with full-blown roses that are ripe, sweet, and touchingly ephemeral” (p. 48).
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