Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on September 17, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of The Richmond Art Museum. The essay was previously included in pages 4-19 of a 20 page exhibition catalogue for the exhibition Poetic Woodlands: The Art of John Elwood Bundy, held August 25 through October 13, 2002 at The Richmond Art Museum. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact The Richmond Art Museum through either this phone number or web address:
Poetic Woodlands: The Art of John Elwood Bundy
by Kristin U. Fedders
For thirty years the woods have been my alma mater
and I shall never get away from them.
--John Elwood Bandy (1907)
A headline on the front page of the Richmond Evening Item published on November 15, 1913 declared: "One Hundred Years Hence J.E. Bundy Will Be Considered One of Greatest American Artists Says Chicago Critic." The critic, Dudley Watson of the Art Institute of Chicago, continued: "He depicts faithfully the scenery of Indiana, which seems to be the only scenery he cares to reproduce. The way to become a great painter of landscape is to find the scenery that fills one with enthusiasm." Although written in 1913, this article proved prophetic. Throughout his career, Bundy painted his beloved Indiana woodlands, seldom recording other landscapes. Although he successfully exhibited at prestigious national and international venues, he dedicated himself to studying the local landscape, consequently producing few of the large-scale exhibition pieces that would have garnered him greater fame.
Although he has yet to achieve the fame foreseen by the critic, Bundy has had a small but dedicated following, expanded by the recent exhibition A Walk in the Woods: The Art of John Elwood Bandy (1853-1933) at Eckert Fine Art Galleries in Indianapolis.
This exhibition, Poetic Woodlands: The Art of John Elwood Bandy, brings together more than seventy of the artist's works, ranging from modest sketches to large exhibition pieces, perhaps the most diverse range ever to be exhibited. The Richmond Art Museum also has, for the first time, assembled a large number of sketches, watercolors, gouaches, and etchings, demonstrating that while Bundy deservingly made his reputation with oil paintings of poetic woodlands, the astonishing quality of his work in other media deserves recognition.
The consistent quality of Bundy's work led William Forsyth, a prominent Indianapolis artist, to dub Bundy "dean of the Richmond Group of artists." Similar to the more widely known Hoosier Group based in Brown County, Indiana, the Richmond Group was a loose federation of local artists, many self-taught, who focused on the indigenous landscape. They captured neither the sparkling light effects of impressionism nor the moodiness of tonalism, but rather the telling details of the familiar, what Forsyth described as "the everyday effect of things to the everyday man." The unusual presence of such a vital artistic community in what was a relatively small Indiana town may be attributed in part to the industrial wealth that characterized Richmond at the turn of the century, providing an audience of cultured, educated, and wealthy patrons. The Art Association of Richmond, which began to mount exhibitions of both local and national painters in 1898, combined the efforts of patrons and artists, foremost among them, John Elwood Bundy.
Bundy was born near Greensboro, in Guilford County, North Carolina on May 1, 1853 to Mary Moore Bundy and John Bundy. When he was five, his family moved to a farm near Monrovia, Indiana. This journey made a profound impression upon the artist, fostering his life-long interest in the close observation of nature. Many years later, he described the journey in poetic terms:
Before following this path, however, Bundy settled with his parents and eight siblings in a Quaker community on a successful farm, where he remained until he was 24 years old.
A birthright Friend, Bundy spoke little of the role Quakerism played in his artistic life. Although nothing in the Discipline spoke specifically against art, Quaker culture cultivated plainness, utility, and quality. One of the artist's earliest memories was of watching his mother weave a coverlet, a handicraft for which Friends were well known: " . . . as a very little child in my early home in North Carolina, I sat by my mother at the loom watching the bright-colored threads grow into the beautiful patterns as she wove the old-fashioned coverlets." Bundy's sensitivity to color and pattern reflected his deeper interest in art, and when he was a child, his drawings attracted attention.
Bundy does imply that his talent flourished despite the practical bent of Quaker culture:
True to his description, while Bundy remained on the family farm he was educated at the Quaker seminary at Monrovia, became a farmer, and for two years assisted his brother, who was a carriage-maker. According to one writer, "He was known as the farmer who planted straight rows. He would try to finish his farm work before sunset, a time of day that has always interested him, in order to study the evening skies."
Although a number of years would pass before he could devote himself solely to art, his desire to be an artist remained steadfast and he gleaned any artistic training and advice available to him. As a boy, he used natural dyes and juices for his colors, until the writing-school teacher brought him a box of watercolors, his first artist's materials. When he was twenty, he took two weeks instruction in the application of oils in Indianapolis with the well-known portrait painter Barton S. Hays, before continuing on to New York City where he copied paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These few weeks were the extent of Bundy's artistic education, yet despite his lack of formal training his work reached a level of accomplishment that earned him both a career as an art teacher and international recognition of his paintings, particularly his landscapes. Although his earliest paintings -- portraits in oil from photographs such as Portrait of a Man (1886) -- have a slightly stilted quality, his mature work exhibits none of the self-taught naivete that distinguishes either folk artists or other self-taught artists such as Marcus Mote. The lack of formal training also meant that Bundy was free from the influence of any "school" of painting, and his style was entirely his own, although he admired the work of George Inness, and claimed, "Had I seen his work earlier, I probably would have changed my style."
In 1875, Bundy married Mary Marlatt of Morgan County and the couple eventually had two sons: Arthur L., who later became a photographer in Richmond; and Walter R., who was a civil engineer for the Burlington Railroad in Chicago. Given his sons' chosen careers, it seems that some of John Bundy's talent for the applied arts manifested itself in his sons. Although little is known about the artist's activities from 1875 until 1888, when he assumed a teaching post at Earlham College, during this time he painted portraits, a lucrative practice for an artist, and he taught an art class in Martinsville around 1886.
In 1888, Bundy became the head of the Art Department at Earlham College. The Catalogue for the academic year 1888-89 lists him as J. E. Bundy, Instructor in Painting and Drawing, one of twenty-four staff members. Forty-one students are enrolled in the Art Department, almost all women. The two-page description of the program in drawing and painting reveals much about Bundy's artistic philosophy. Art courses played an important role in the liberal arts education of the Earlham student. According to the description:
In order to achieve these goals, the painting and drawing curriculum covered form, color, composition, and some art history.
While these aspects would characterize any art curriculum, the stress laid on the study of nature suggests Bundy's distinctive role in shaping the program. The Catalogue asserts:
For Bundy, the close study of nature offered more than a pleasant afternoon spent in the surrounding countryside. He drew upon nature for both inspiration and subject matter, honing an appreciation that had manifested itself on his family's trip west. Unfortunately, Bundy's students were less enamored of nature than was the artist. In a newspaper interview Bundy said, "I couldn't get the art class to go out all at one time, except on Saturdays, and even then I could not do anything to develop my own talent. " Moreover, the position paid "only a good living" and absorbed all of his energy, leaving little, as he states, for his own work. Bundy left Earlham in 1896 to pursue his painting full time, although he continued to tutor students, many of whom -- like George Baker and Olive Rush -- successfully established themselves as artists.
After leaving Earlham, Bundy worked from sunrise to twilight in his studio. For three months beginning in early autumn, he lived in a small three-room studio, which he named "Cedar Crest," several miles outside of Richmond at the edge of the woods where he spent most of his time painting outdoors, studying the foliage, the change of season, and the landscape. A congenial group of artist-friends often accompanied Bundy into the countryside. A member of the group would rent a vacant house and the artists would set up camp, before spending their days sketching. Apparently, Bundy never allowed anyone else to cook, claiming that everyone else's gravy resembled "paste." After months of painting and sketching outdoors, he would return to his main studio with sketches as well as mental images, enough material to fuel his painting throughout the winter. He also spent three summers near Petoskey, Michigan and a winter in Southern California and recorded those landscapes as well.
One of the artist's most enduring legacies is his role in founding the Art Association, now the Richmond Art Museum, the year after he left Earlham. In his words:
He credited T. A. Mott, superintendent of the Richmond schools, and Ella Bond Johnston, local philanthropist and general manager and director of the gallery, with making the Art Association possible. The Association exhibited works by local artists, brought exhibitions to Richmond, and circulated exhibitions of Indiana artists to other Midwestern towns. Johnston proved a powerful patron, writing a number of articles about the artist in which she described Bundy as a "landscape painter-historian," acknowledging his lifelong study of nature.
In his later years, Bundy was plagued by ill health, at times brought on by his work outdoors. In September 1929, he moved with his son, Arthur, and daughter-in-law to Harlingen, Texas, and on January 17, 1933 he died in a sanatorium in Cincinnati. His funeral service was held in Centerville at the home of his premier patron, John Nixon. The coffin was situated in a small gallery whose walls were covered with the artist's pictures. At the memorial service, William Forsyth, "present dean of Indiana artists," spoke eloquently of Bundy's love of nature. A series of memorial exhibitions followed, including one at Earlham a month after his death curated by Howard Leigh. John Elwood Bundy and his wife, Mary, are buried in Earlham Cemetery.
Gallery D: A Life's Work
The works in this gallery provide a number of perspectives on John Elwood Bundy's oeuvre. He willingly spent almost his entire professional career in Richmond because, he had told his dealer, "there is so much more beauty there than he can ever express, he needs go no farther for subjects to inspire him to his work." Although best known for his landscapes, he also painted portraits and still lifes with equal ability, as is demonstrated by Chrysanthemums, an exhibition-sized painting. Two other groupings provide the viewer with some insight into the subtleties of the artist's work. The three landscapes on the east wall demonstrate how Bundy's technique changed over time, from the earliest landscape included in this exhibition -- Untitled (Early Landscape) (1886) -- to one of the latest, Hills of Metamora (1921). The Meadow, painted in 1900, marks a midpoint between the two. His Early Landscape is more tightly painted, the brushstrokes less apparent, and the whole seeming more careful, less impressionistic. As he moved through his career, his brushstrokes became looser, freer, and more evident. These brushstrokes give the viewer a sense of the artist's hand and his enthusiastic engagement with the landscape, as well as a sense of spontaneity belied by Bundy's meticulous preparatory sketches.
Another grouping on the south wall suggests the subtle differences between paintings, even when the artist was duplicating his subject. Old Farm in Winter (1918) was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1918. The viewer stands on a hill that drops into a streambed or gully before rising again to meet the farm buildings. Bundy often used this compositional device, which suggests a dizzying plunge into the landscape. (Another often-used composition is the path, road, or stream gently leading the viewer into the composition.) Old Farm in Winter (1918) is slightly smaller than Winter Landscape (1918) -- which won the Mary T. R. Foulke Purchase Prize from the Art Association of Richmond in 1918 -- although the subject is the same and some subtle differences distinguish these two canvases. The preparatory sketch, Old Farm in Winter, provides another point of comparison. Although many of the artist's paintings re-examine a tree or a view, Bundy normally did not duplicate his compositions, and his motivation for doing so in this instance is unknown.
Gallery C: Poetic Woodlands
Although Bundy captured the landscape's every mood, he is best known for his images of the beech trees that characterized the Hoosier woodlands. One writer enthused, "Mr. Bundy, more than any other American painter today, understands the individuality of trees, and he imparts to each of them a strong personality." When asked by an interviewer how many beech trees he had painted, Bundy replied:
In addition to painting the beech woods of Indiana, he also captured deep vistas over farmland, as well as the changes wrought by the passing seasons. Although Bundy, like many Indiana artists, spent ample time painting the fall foliage, he also captured the blossoms of spring and the snows of winter. Indeed, to capture the light and character of the snowy fields proved a greater artistic challenge for most artists than the easier, if more dramatic, fall colors.
Bundy painted one tree at least twenty times, until it was felled: "I know every twig, every bit of moss that clings to the trunk of this old tree. Here is the last picture of my old friend. It was a day in March. The snow had melted until I knew that the velvety green of the moss would show through in spots and I made my pilgrimage to paint it. This is what I found . . ." and he displayed a painting of a new-cut stump. "I never thought any one would have the heart to cut this beautiful tree or I would gladly have paid them to let it stand, at least as long as I live." As this story suggests, Bundy repeatedly painted the woodlands, neither from a lack of originality nor from commercialism, but because he wished to convey the unique character of the local landscape that he knew intimately.
Although Bundy painted few figural works after his initial
forays into portraiture, his landscapes often suggest the hand of man. A
road will lead the viewer into the landscape, providing both a pathway into
the painting and the trace of human activity. At other times, bridges, barns,
or houses will offer a sense of scale, although nature
always prevails in his work. Cows, the most serene barnyard animals, frequently populate his landscapes, including his woodlands, representing humankind at a remove. Although Bundy never implies a struggle between human and nature, his subtle suggestions of a landscape modified by the human hand make his images more accessible to his viewers, who can find a point of entry into the landscape via the familiar forms of buildings, roads, and farm animals.
This gallery includes the greatest number of Bundy's large canvases intended for museum exhibition. The strategy of submitting large canvases to exhibition juries was well tested. Because contemporary galleries were often hung closely, with paintings from ceiling to floor, artists competed to show "on the line," meaning at eye level, by submitting large canvases that not only would demonstrate artistic accomplishment, but also would occupy so much space that they would dominate smaller works. In addition, artists and their dealers would spend large amounts on framing, providing paintings with the elaborate, and often hand-carved, gold-leafed frames that signified an important work.
Bundy's work appeared in a number of prestigious venues, including the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hoosier Salon, the John Herron Art Institute (solo show), the Brooklyn Museum, the Corcoran Gallery, the National Academy, and the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Frequently, he also exhibited locally, particularly at shows sponsored by the Art Association of Richmond, including the Indiana circuit exhibits. His dealer, J. W. Young of Young's Galleries, Chicago, also exhibited as much work as Bundy would provide. Although he was disappointed by his failure to win some of the honors that his work should have commanded, this oversight may have more to do with politics than with quality. Bundy was not a member of a recognizable school of painting, he had never been the student of a prominent teacher, and he chose to live at a distance from the urban foci of the international arts community. Nonetheless, he was a highly respected artist, recognized during his own lifetime, and revered for both his talent and his gentle personality.
Although Bundy may not have won many of the art world's most prestigious prizes, his collectors considered him the equal of better-known artists, such as Winslow Homer and George Inness. One collector wrote to Bundy:
Bundy confided in his dealer, "I feel sometimes as though my efforts to do anything were in vain, and yet when I get a letter like this, it makes me feel like trying a little harder and sticking to it."
Gallery B, Patricia Quigg Lakoff Gallery: Watercolors and Sketches
For this exhibition, the Richmond Art Museum has assembled what may be the largest number of John Elwood Bundy's watercolors, gouaches, engravings, and ink and pencil sketches ever exhibited as a group. Largely unexamined by critics and scholars, Bundy's work in these media is exceptional, rivaling even his work in oil. Although self-taught, the pencil sketches demonstrate Bundy's strong draftsmanship, his ability to use a few lines to create a convincingly three-dimensional scene. Even as a child, Bundy impressed onlookers with his ability to draw. Ella Bond Johnston relates, "once when he went with his older brothers to see the first railway engine that passed near their home, in the evening when the children were gathered about the table busy with their lessons, he reproduced the engine on his slate with remarkable accuracy, to the surprise and delight of the big brothers." Bundy honed his natural talent with a lifetime of sketching, which underpinned his paintings.
Ronald Gallery, Lilly Library, Earlham College: The Students of John Elwood Bundy
Although John Elwood Bundy was self-taught, he became a much-loved teacher, instructing students at Earlham College (1888-1896) as well as in his private studio in Richmond. The Earlhamite, the college's alumni magazine, relates that Bundy's classes were fully enrolled with enthusiastic students. After he left Earlham to pursue his painting full-time, he continued to teach and many of his students built successful careers. His students include George Baker, Olive Rush, Edna Cathell, Maude Kaufman Eggemeyer, William Eyden, Jr., John King, Glen Henshaw, Lawrence McConaha, and Anna E. Newman.
Dedicated to J. E. Bundy, Painter
By Edith Lombard Squires, 1926
The first faint loveliness of tender green,
Like misty spray with iridescent gleams,
Imprisoned sunshine with a rainbow sheen
That stirs us like our half remembered dreams;
And makes us know the mountain peaks of life
The swift, glad thrill that comes to those who live
Forgetful for the moment of the strife
And clamor, that is all the world can give.
And yet, how soon we journey through the year,
Forgetting all this wonder of the spring,
The beauty that once thrilled us shines less clear,
Grows cloudy, dim -- and we forget to sing.
But now, when Winter comes, our dreams are near,
For you have visioned Spring, and Spring lives here.
1. "One Hundred Years Hence J. E. Bundy Will Be Considered One of Greatest American Artists Says Chicago Critic," Evening Item, 15 November 1913, 1.
2. A Walk in the Woods: The Art of John Elwood Bandy (1853-1933), essay by William H. Gerdts (Indianapolis: Eckert Fine Art, 2000).
3. "J. E. Bundy Proclaimed as Dean of 'Richmond Group' of Artists," Palladium, 28 September 1916, 9, quoting William Forsyth, "Art in Indiana," Indianapolis News. One of Bundy's obituaries quoted Ella Bond Johnston, who said, "Folks cultivated and uncultivated enjoyed his works" ("Death Claims Leading Figure in Art World, Palladium, 18 January 1933, 5). J. W. Young, Bundy's dealer, wrote: "Those who know nature and love beauty need no art cyclopedia, nor do they need dissertations upon art, nor do they need to read cleverly written booklets 'How to enjoy a picture' in order to understand and get pleasure from a work by Bundy" (J. W. Young, Henshaw, Bundy, Forkner (Chicago: Young's Art Galleries, 1917), 5).
4. For further discussion of the Richmond Group, see Mary Q. Burnet, "The Richmond Group," chapter 12 in Art and Artists of Indiana (New York: The Century Co., 1921), 268-88; A Walk in the Woods; William H. Gerdts, "The Art of John Elwood Bundy," American Art Review 14, no. 4 (August 2002): 152-9; and William H. Gerdts, Art Across America: Two Centuries of Regional Painting, 1710-1920, vol. 2 (New York: Abbeville Press, 1990), 275-7.
5. Letter, Bundy to Mrs. Bertha Andrews, Evanston, Ill., 11 March 1919, Bundy File, Friends Archive, Earlham College, Richmond, In. (hereafter Friends Archive). This letter was also read at Bundy's funeral service and was quoted in the local newspaper ("Memorial Exhibition of John Bundy Is Arranged," Richmond Item, 22 January 1933) (Friends Archive).
6. Ella Bond Johnston, "An Indiana Landscape Poet and Historian," Outlook 107, no. 9 (27 June 1914): 476 (Friends Archive).
7. One of the artist's early admirers was James Whitcomb Riley who, in response to the elder Bundy's distinct lack of enthusiasm for his son's artistic work, gave the artist a number of books with reproductions for him to study ("J. E. Bundy," Palladium, 1 July 1904, 5).
8. Letter, Bundy to Mrs. Bertha Andrews, Evanston, Ill., 11 March 1919, Friends Archive. At least one critic associated Bundy's aesthetic with his Quakerism. One unsigned typescript states, "In true Quaker fashion, he never said anything in paint until he had an inborn feeling that he had a true painter's message to bring" (Richmond Art Museum), a notion probably gleaned from Young, Henshaw, Bandy, Forkner, 15.
9. "Brief Paper on Life of Bundy Is Presented by John Nixon," newspaper clipping (Richmond Art Museum) .
10. Maude Kaufman Eggemeyer, "John Elwood Bundy," in Exhibit of Paintings by Indiana Artists: Collection of John D. Nixon of Centerville, Indiana, with the Spring Flower Show of the Garden Club (Richmond,, Ind.: Nicholson Press, 1927), n.p.
11. "Noted Local Artist Dies," Palladium, 18 January 1933, 10.
12. Vance Prather, "Bundy's 'Beeches' Found Deep in Hoosier Wildernesses, Have Been Made Famous the Country Over as Indiana Artist's Unerring Genius Gained Fair Recognition," Indianapolis Sunday Star, 14 May 1922 (Friends Archive).
13. "Noted Local Artist Dies," Palladium, 18 January 1933, 10; Johnston, "An Indiana Landscape Poet and Historian," 478; and Prather, "Bundy's 'Beeches."
14. Earlham College, Catalogue for the Year 1888-89 (Richmond, Ind.: M. Cullaton & Co., 1889), 60.
15. Catalogue, 60.
16. Prather, "Bundy's 'Beeches.'"
17. Prather, "Bundy's 'Beeches.'"
18. "Tiny Group Built Foundation for Richmond Art Quality," newspaper clipping dated 31 July 1938 (Bundy File, Richmond Art Museum, Richmond, Indiana, hereafter Richmond Art Museum) .
19. Retrospective Exhibit of Paintings by John Elwood Bundy, Public Art Gallery, Richmond, Indiana, September 17 to October 11, 1926, 6 (Friends Archive); J.W. Young, The Art of J .E. Bundy, (exhibit catalogue, Young's Galleries), (n.p., n.d.) (Friends Archive).
20. Burnet, Art and Artists of Indiana, 281-2.
21. Prather, "Bundy's 'Beeches.'"
22. Ella Bond Johnston, "John Elwood Bundy -- A Tribute," Indianapolis Sunday Star, 14 May 1922 (Friends Archive); and Ella Bond Johnston, "An Indiana Landscape Poet and Historian."
23. "Famous Local Artist to Move Residence to Texas," Palladium, 30 January 1929, 1.
24. "Funeral Services Held for John Elwood Bundy," Richmond Item, 22 January 1933 (Friends Archive); "Noted Local Artist Dies," Palladium, 18 January 1933, 1; "Death Claims Leading Figure in Art World," Palladium, 18 January 1933, 5; and "Funeral Services Held for John Elwood Bundy," Evening Item, 22 January 1933 (Friends Archive).
25. "Memorial Exhibition of John Bundy Is Arranged," Richmond Item, 22 January 1933 (Friends Archive); and John Elwood Bundy: Mr. And Mrs. John D. Nixon Join Earlham College in Assembling This Unusually Rich Collection of Paintings by John Elwood Bundy as a Tribute to His Memory, Carpenter Hail, June 5 to 16, 1947 (Friends Archive).
26. J. W. Young, The Art of J. E. Bundy (Chicago: Young's Art Galleries, n.d.), n.p.
27. "Memorial Exhibition of John Bundy Is Arranged," Richmond Item, 22 January 1933 (Friends Archive); and "A Tribute to J. E. Bundy," Evening Item, 31 January 1906, 4.
28. Prather, "Bundy's 'Beeches.'"
29. "Bundy Retrospective Exhibit Contains Varied Landscapes," newspaper clipping. (Friends Archive) .
30. "Bundy Is Classed with Charles W. Eaton as Artist," Palladium, 19 September 1907, 1.
31. "Art Patrons of Richmond Pay Tribute to Bundy at 30th Anniversary Banquet," Palladium, 18 September 1926, 1.
32. "Local Men Are Honored," Evening Item, 11 April 1904, 1.
33. Retrospective Exhibit of Paintings by John Elwood Bandy, 6.
34. Young, The Art of J. E. Bundy, n.p.
35. Johnston, "An Indiana Landscape Poet and Historian," 478.
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