William Herbert Dunton was born in Augusta, Maine, in 1878. His lifelong passion for the outdoors was nurtured from an early age by his grandfather, who took him on expeditions, teaching him about hunting and fishing. Drawing the outdoors followed naturally. As a child, Dunton was self-taught, developing a precise style that would lead to a successful career as an illustrator. He first sold drawings to a magazine at age 16, when he quit school to work as a professional illustrator.
William Herbert Dunton’s precocious talent was further educated with classes at the Cowles Art School in Boston, and at the Art Student’s League in New York City. The magazines that Dunton worked for included Harper’s Weekly, Collier’s, Woman’s Home Companion, Scribners, Cosmopolitan, and several others. He also illustrated numerous books, including several of the classic cowboy stories of Zane Grey. It was the search for subject material for illustrations of western life that first brought Dunton out West, to Montana, in 1896. For the next 15 years, he spent every summer traveling the western states, doing sketches that would become the basis for his magazine illustrations. It was during this period that Dunton began to grow weary, and eventually fed up with the pressures of deadlines, and the demands of editors.
In 1912, William Herbert Dunton was enrolled at the Art Student’s League for a class with Ernest Blumenschein, the well-known western painter who had been instrumental in establishing the artist colony at Taos, New Mexico. It was not long before Blumenschein suggested that Dunton would be happier living out west, in Taos. William Herbert Dunton complied that very summer, intent on leaving the pressures of New York behind in order to focus seriously on his painting. He would remain in Taos for the rest of his life.
Settling in Taos, William Herbert Dunton pursued his favorite subject matter with free rein: The open range, hunters, cowboys on horseback, and scenes representing native life before the influx of Europeans. He seemed particularly concerned with recording the ways and appearances of the Old West, a lifestyle that he felt was significant but fading before his very eyes.
“The West has passed – more’s the pity. In another 25 years the old-time westerner will have gone too – gone with the buffalo and the antelope. I’m going to hand down to posterity a bit of the unadulterated real thing…”
And hand down the real thing he did. William Herbert Dunton exerted his skills for rendering detail to achieve exact authenticity in clothing, equipment, and the powerful muscles of horses. The precision of his painting, along with the hint of drama, were the hallmarks of his work. In addition to painting, Dunton also did precise lithographs of animals, a technique he had acquired in New York when the Depression made it necessary to produce less expensive art work.
For some time, William Herbert Dunton continued to do illustrations for magazines while living in New Mexico, in order to make enough money to live. There were no galleries in Taos at that time, so in order to sell their paintings, the artists Blumenschein, Sharp, Couse, Phillips, and Berninghaus, along with Dunton, arranged traveling exhibitions to promote their work – the official beginning of the Taos Society of Artists.
William Herbert Dunton remained in Taos as the Society grew. One notable friend of his was the Russian painter Gaspard, who was not warmly welcomed by most others there. Dunton, however, sought painting instruction from Gaspard, and in turn advised the Russian on the best places for hiking and fishing, as they shared an intense love of outdoor activities. Their collaboration is interesting, because their painting styles were so radically different. The fact that Dunton sought instruction from Gaspard suggests that he was looking to branch out and develop his painting style further. However, his style remained little changed, and he succeeded in attracting several prominent collectors including Douglas Fairbanks, Franklin Roosevelt, and H.J. Lutcher Stark. The Stark Museum in Orange, Texas still houses the largest collection of Dunton’s work in the U.S.
In 1922 William Herbert Dunton resigned from the Taos Society of Artists, likely due to a personal conflict, and from then on arranged solo exhibitions of his work. For the next 13 years he exhibited in several states, from New Mexico to New York. In 1923 he was commissioned to do a three paneled mural for the Missouri State Capitol.
William Herbert Dunton’s health began its long decline in 1928, when he was injured by a horse, and began suffering from ulcers. He continued to deteriorate, and was finally diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1935. Buck Dunton died in Taos in 1936, at the age of 57.