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Born on a farm in Polk County, Nebraska on New Year’s Day, 1888, Augustus Dunbier would become one of the Midwest’s most respected painters. Having studied seven years at the Düsseldorf Academy, Dunbier came into contact with a strict academic art discipline, which he followed throughout his career. Admitted there in 1907, Dunbier trained under Adolf Münzer (b. 1870).
While following a traditional regimen in art studies in the academy, Dunbier impressed the faculty by winning a prize in stained-glass design. Always inquisitive, Dunbier sought out new directions in art. Accordingly, as one sensitive to avant-garde developments in contemporary painting, he met Max Ernst in Cologne and developed a friendship. As the First World War engulfed Europe, the young artist moved back to America in the fall of 1914. He joined many American expatriate artists who moved home to America at that time. His first matter of business was to enroll at the Art Institute of Chicago where he would continue his classical training and win five Honorable Mentions. Soon involved in the student milieu, Dunbier would refer to the gregarious Wellington J. Reynolds as his favorite teacher. The older master worked out of the famous Tree Studio Building on State Street. Here the aggressive Dunbier immersed himself in a beehive of activity. He came into contact with other young stars such as Victor Higgins, Walter Ufer, and Louis Ritman, who had just returned from a season in Giverny. Ufer invited Dunbier to accompany him to the Southwest, in 1915. Later, Dunbier would paint with Edgar Payne in New Mexico and California.
Eventually, World War I had an effect on Dunbier. In 1918 he served in the Camouflage Corps, a special branch of the American military forces, which had been spearheaded into existence by the dynamic painter and personality Abbott Thayer. After the war, once again Dunbier immersed himself into the struggling American art community. Soon after, he painted with the reticent impressionist member of the Bucks County art colony Robert Spencer. He also came to know George Luks, the bold eccentric whose affiliation with Robert Henri’s Ash Can School served as valuable inspiration. Various documents show that from about 1921 onward, Dunbier socialized with George Bellows and some of the Ash Can painters, including their leader, Robert Henri. It was about this time that Dunbier began to distance himself from the fastidious Düsseldorfian style; nevertheless, he maintained his skill in draftsmanship. Subsequently, Dunbier developed a progressive, painterly post-impressionist manner. In this way he proved himself as an ambitious colorist, unbridled in his effort to develop the effects of light and sunshine. No doubt his intention was to render a mood in the manner of Claude Monet, striving to capture the atmospheric effects of a particular moment. In the work of Dunbier we find a sure handling of pigment and a directness revealed from his plein air execution. This predilection to paint from nature, however, did not mitigate his lifelong interest in portraiture. While some of his works show a definite conservative approach, other paintings reveal the influence of the Ash Can mode.
Dunbier’s trip to Alaska in 1926 is frequently mentioned in various biographies. Hired by Alaska Railroad as a photographer, he returned not with photographs but with numerous paintings. Throughout his long career Dunbier exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy, at the Society of Independent Artists, at the Salmagundi Club and at other shows. During the Depression era, he served as a teacher in the Civil Works Administration. For the next several decades Dunbier’s career resulted in a plethora of outstanding canvases.