Robert Spear Dunning, an acknowledged master of still-life painting, was also, through his role as a teacher, one of the most influential practitioners of the genre in nineteenth-century America. Dunning was born in Brunswick, Maine. When he was six years old, his family moved to Fall River, Massachusetts, already a manufacturing town on the Massachusetts-Rhode Island border where the Quequechan River, with its eight waterfalls, provided ample power for mills. During Dunning’s lifelong residence in Fall River, the town, 45 miles south of Boston, grew to be the center of the American textile mill industry. Dunning first worked in a local mill, and then later in coastal shipping before deciding to pursue a career as an artist. He began his art study under James Roberts in nearby Tiverton, Rhode Island, and trained for three years with Daniel Huntington at the National Academy of Design in New York. By 1852, Dunning was back in Fall River, where he established a studio, and built a practice as a portrait, still-life, and genre painter. His timing was fortuitous. As Fall River prospered, it supported a growing class of industrialists, managers, and professionals, ready patrons for accomplished paintings by a local artist. Dunning became a focus of local pride.
In 1859, he joined John E. Grouard in the firm of Grouard & Dunning, artists, in Fall River. Later, in 1870, the partners established the Fall River Evening Drawing School, the predecessor of the Fall River School, which, under Dunning’s influence became an important regional school known especially for still life. This was all the more notable because Fall River was not otherwise a major cultural center. Nevertheless, aspiring artists came from around New England to Fall River to study with Dunning, who conveyed his enthusiasm for still life to his students and did much to shape their careers. Artists who studied with Dunning, all of them still-life specialists, include Bryant Chapin, Herbert Cash, Franklin H. Miller, Albert F. Monroe, and Abbie Luella Zuill.
By 1864, Dunning began to focus almost exclusively on still-life painting. His characteristic arrangements celebrated the beauty and abundance of fruits available to the tables of postwar gentility, images evoking a domestic life of ease and grace that found favor with mid-century tastes. As a teacher his influence promoted a taste in Fall River for still-life painting, long after it had fallen out of favor in New York and other, more cosmopolitan art centers. Like many still-life painters, Dunning had his favorite devices, which he repeated in many compositions. American still-life scholar William Gerdts describes his usual practice:
Fruit is lusciously rendered, usually resting upon a highly polished wooden tabletop with an ornately carved border, which marks the edge of the picture plane and is parallel to the viewer’s gaze. . . . A characteristic component of Dunning’s paintings is the honeycomb, which adds a touch of the unusual and the exotic both in terms of edibles and of form, texture, design, and outline. Like so many mid-nineteenth century still-life painters, he preferred a profusion of ripe fruit, juxtaposing different shapes, colors, sizes, and the like and usually opening up at least one piece of fruit so that the viewer can study it inside and out (William H. Gerdts, Painters of the Humble Truth: Masterpiece of American Still Life, 1801–1939 [Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1981], p. 117).
During his lifetime, Dunning enjoyed a long and successful career with his chosen specialty. More than a century after his death, the memory of his life and work has been obscured. Partly, this is because of the inferior status that still life has historically occupied in the hierarchy of “important” types of painting. The details of Dunning’s life further conspired towards obscurity. Married at the age of forty to Mehitabel Hill (also, apparently, an artist), the couple remained childless, and thus without family to burnish his legacy. And, then, of course, Dunning chose to live his life in Fall River, rarely venturing further to exhibit his work. There was a small burst of activity at the beginning, when he went to study in New York. He exhibited, as a figure and genre painter, in 1850 and 1851 at the National Academy of Design and had a work accepted by the American Art Union in 1850. Then, in 1880, for reasons as yet unknown, he exhibited still lifes at the National Academy and the Boston Art Club. These paintings, already owned by private collectors, were not offered for sale.