Erica E. Hirshler

A perfect summer day in New England with a clear blue sky. The musical burble of a small brook, birdsong, and the hum of insects. The air is hot, heavy, and still—full of the scents of grasses. Such moments seem as if they could last forever. Through this painting by Dennis Bunker, one has.

The scene is Medfield, Massachusetts, about 17 miles west of Boston. Bunker spent the summer of 1889 there, making a series of brilliant landscapes that demonstrate his command of a new style of painting: Impressionism. He had experimented with it the year before, while working in the English countryside with his friend John Singer Sargent. Both artists tested the modern techniques for capturing the effects of sunlight developed by French painter Claude Monet. Although none of Bunker’s English paintings are known to survive, his Medfield landscapes show he learned his lessons well, applying vivid colors in long, flowing strokes that perfectly capture the waving grasses, flowing stream, sultry light, and humid air. The Pool, Medfield, Bunker’s simple view of a patch of wetlands, inspires me; it reminds me of the creativity that comes from collaboration and also from solitude, and of the opportunity created by looking—really looking—and translating what we see into something new.

Through Bunker’s painting, and thanks to the efforts of conservationists who have preserved the area depicted in his landscapes, we can share the peace, contentment, and artistic satisfaction of that long-ago afternoon. The artist described its effects in a note to his friend Isabella Stewart Gardner, writing:

You should see the Charles River, it has dwindled almost to a brook—and has lost all its Boston character. It is very charming—like a little English river—or rather a little like an English river. It runs here through the most lovely meadows, very properly framed in pine forests and low familiar looking hills—all very much the reverse of striking or wonderful or marvelous, but very quietly winning and all wearing so very well that I wonder what more one needs in any country… The calmness of everything here—its roughness and simplicity is to me most charming and restful—and I feel more happy and in better courage.

Finding happiness and courage in simple, familiar places and things—things “quietly winning and all wearing so very well”—is essential to me now, when my more adventurous plans have been set aside by the pandemic’s strict travel restrictions and I still work from home, alone. My world has condensed and become too solitary. But like Bunker in his meadow, I have discovered pleasure in unpretentious everyday sights and their myriad small changes, newly apparent to me over the course of my repetitive days. I have much more time to think, to contemplate the ephemeral and the enduring, lives lost and loves lasting. Bunker died young, at age 29, of an infection, just eighteen months after making The Pool, Medfield. But his art remains and his summer day is still mine to treasure. His bold choice to make the ordinary extraordinary gives me hope.

Author

Erica E. Hirshler is Croll Senior Curator of American Paintings, Art of the Americas.