Robert Spear Dunning was the foremost American specialist in the dining-room still-life, and this impressively large and stunningly detailed painting is surely his masterwork, arguably the greatest American painting of its type. Dunning himself singled out the painting as very likely his best, declaring in an autograph letter that accompanies this piece—the only known letter of this sort that he ever wrote—that “I think the lines, the values & gradations of color are held together in a oneness of effect that pleases the esthetic sense, as well as any picture I ever painted.” The painting remains in its original opulent gilded frame, a frame that like the painting itself, is a masterpiece, with carvings of fruit that echo the subject of the painting itself.
Dunning (1829-1905) was born in Brunswick, Maine, but came to Fall River, Massachusetts as a child of five. After some rudimentary training from James Roberts in Tiverton Maine, he studied from 1849-52 under the extremely successful New York portrait painter Daniel Huntington, and then returned to Fall River with well-mastered technical skills to practice portraiture. He stayed on in Fall River, depending largely on local patronage, for the remainder of his career. His early works were mostly portraits, but around 1864, he turned his attention to still-life. While he also produced some excellent landscapes, this became the form of painting for which he became best known, and which won him substantial patronage locally, as well as election to the National Academy of Design. In 1870 with John Grouard he founded the Fall River Evening Drawing School, which produced seven or eight noteworthy artists, but none who equaled Dunning’s mastery of composition or skill in rendering a range of textures. Today he is generally regarded as America’s greatest master of a type of still-life which celebrates optimism and abundance, and revels in the challenge of capturing the varied qualities of polished wood, shining metal, cut glass and lush fruit of all sorts.
While economically depressed today, in the 19th century Fall River was boomingly prosperous. In 1793, Samuel Slater constructed the very first textile mill in the United States just twenty-two miles away, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. By the second decade of the 19th century, Slater’s carpenter-builder and other entrepreneurs were constructing similar mills in Fall River, since the Quequechan River (pronounced "quick-a-shan") had eight waterfalls, making it the best power source in Southern New England. By the mid 19th century Fall River had become the leading textile manufacturing center in the United States, and the epicenter of this country’s first great industrial fortunes. This new industrial wealth spawned enormous mansions, and was surely largely responsible for a new opulence in artistic products of all sorts, which reveled in costly, time-consuming, technical effects. Dunning was one of the beneficiaries of this new wealth. The most successful artist of this period in Fall River, he never felt the need to move elsewhere, and became the leader of what has been described by the noted scholar William H. Gerdts as “the most sophisticated regional group of nineteenth-century painters specializing in still life.”
The magnificent dining-room was a new phenomenon of this period. 17th century houses had no dining room, and in the 18th century the dining table might be set up according to the season and the owner’s whim in any room on the ground floor. In the rare houses such as Jefferson’s Monticello, which had true dining rooms, the dining room tended to be small. In the Victorian period, however, dining became a grand social ritual, with elaborate forms of silverware and serving dishes, and dining rooms became an opportunity for the exuberant display of culture and wealth—generally the second most costly room in the house, after the front parlor. Dunning’s paintings were the ne plus ultra of this phenomenon. A large Dunning painting, such as the present example, transformed even a modest dining room into a showplace—as it would still do today. Dining room conversation, as we know from the case of Oscar Wilde, became a distinct art form.
This painting was commissioned in 1887 by Moses Pierce, a pioneer industrialist who was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1808, and started his first business at the age of eleven. In 1840, Pierce moved to Norwich, Connecticut to found the Norwich Bleach, Calendaring and Dying Company, which grew to become the largest textile finishing operation in the United States, with over two thousand employees. Pierce went on to become Vice-President of the American Society of Inventors, a Fellow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a founder of the Norwich Free Academy, and a Trustee of the Hampton Institute in Virginia, where a building that is still in use is named for him. He made at least eight trips to Europe, at least one of them with his close friend, John Slater, Jr., a prominent philanthropist—who was the son of John Slater, the younger brother of Samuel Slater who had founded America’s first textile mill. This painting hung in Pierce’s home at 274 Broadway in Norwich, now the residence of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Norwich. An ardent abolitionist and supporter of civil rights, at his death in 1900, at the age of ninety-two, Pierce left most of his fortune to train teachers for the African-American schools of the South.
The themes of optimism and abundance for which Dunning is celebrated come to a crescendo in this canvas. A full 29 ⅛ x 36 ¼ inches in size, which would be impressive for any subject, but particularly for a still-life, this painting presents an almost overwhelming abundance of varieties of fruit: peaches, pears, apples, cantaloupe, watermelon, and green and purple grapes. There is even a bunch of bananas—an extremely exotic fruit for this period. First cultivated in New Guinea, 8,000 years ago, the banana made its way across Asia and Europe, and was introduced to South America in the 15th century by Portuguese colonists. In the 1870s and 1880s the development of railroad and steamship transportation, and of refrigeration, made it possible for companies such as the Boston Fruit Company to bring it for the first time to North American markets.
Dunning surpassed himself in rendering the unique texture of each of these fruits, as well as of the silver tray, a silver compote, a glass bowl filled with apples, and a dimly lit silver vase in the background (with some sort of exotic, lizard-like silver creature, which may function as a handle, crawling up its side). He also engaged in various visual tricks to make these objects enticing. The watermelon has been broken open to dramatize its succulence; and an orange has been partially peeled and opened into sections, as if enticing us to reach out and take a piece. Some of the fruit rests on a silver tray which slightly projects towards us, over the table’s edge, and in which the fruit is reflected, doubling its visual impact.
In his letter, Dunning particularly stressed the formal qualities of his design. As he noted:
“The principal group of color in this piece forms the centre of the picture, on a line running from the top of the watermelon to right and left around the salver, thus forming the mass of color & light—the next gradation of color will be found to recede a step into the background, it is framed by the bananas, apples and purple grapes; and the next retirement of color tone & color consists of the base, drapery and frieze.”
In the background on the right is a classical frieze, which portrays a festival procession of Bacchus, “the giver of all good gifts to men,” as Dunning explained in his letter. Bacchus is carried on the shoulders of a faun and nymph and has a bunch of grapes in his hand; Silenus is just behind him, with his arm around a boy’s neck, “indicating his jolly nature”; the nymph Ariadne comes next, riding on the back of a lion; and following are fauns, nymphs and satyrs, playing on musical instruments and singing. Such classical references declare Dunning’s erudition; in this instance they may also have discretely hinted that behind the façade of Victorian propriety, and in the privacy of the home, there was often considerable release from burdensome restraints, whether in discourse or modes of sexual expression.
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