Still Life in an Open House
One of the remaining classically-trained realist painters, Thomas R. Dunlay, has a few (controversial?) thoughts on the state of the art world today.
“I chose to make a living in painting, but I also chose to paint well.”
Located in what was an old Florida hotel with just one bathroom per floor is a newly renovated office space I was renting for my business. We had a kind landlord who bought his tenants gifts for Christmas and enjoyed a slow conversation. One day I met him in his office and our discussion soon off-railed as he could tell where my eyes were drawn. There was a detailed portrait of a city landscape hanging on his wall that I could tell had been painted with great expertise. Little did I know, I would meet that painter, shake his hand and interview him for this magazine three years later.
Jenna and I love to travel to the Boston area and on our most recent trip I knew I wanted to finally meet this acclaimed portrait artist. We had coincidentally booked our trip on the same weekend he had an open house at his teaching studios - I got in touch with him and he allowed Jenna and I to arrive an hour before the open house event for an interview.
Thomas Dunlay navigated his way through his three studios on the second floor of an old factory where each wall had sketches, charcoal portraits, and various paintings spanning from the last two centuries. Dunlay had several of his own finished pieces hung up on the wall across the room from a few pieces by his teacher, R.H. Ives Gammell, who apprenticed an acclaimed painter himself, when he was younger, and so on.
Dunlay is a large part of the classical realist movement as part of the Boston School, one where an emphasis on skill is placed on the artist as they revive the discipline of 19th-century neoclassicism and realism in art.
“This is like heart surgery. It’s very hard to do and there are no shortcuts,” Dunlay said in his deep Boston accent as we sat on a red cushioned couch outside his studios. He was referring to this process of painting that he learned decades ago and now teaches to his students. Instead of instructing as in a classroom structure, he takes on about 5 or 6 students (or pupils) at a time and has them work in his studios, mostly sketching and drawing at first, then finally painting.
“There were standards for becoming a portrait painter, and you only went into this if you had insane talent and the willingness to be trained for years… Then the advent of modernism really came on very strong at the turn of the previous century and because this way of painting is so difficult and the system could not keep up with the demand,”
“So this led to universities teaching more students than they should have and then producing slightly less well-trained artists,” Dunlay stated just before a pupil of his said, “It’s not sustainable,” to which Dunlay responded by repeating it.
Growing up, Dunlay was surrounded by art as his father was an amateur painter. “He was incredibly talented and he had wanted to become a painter, but his life was interrupted by the Second World War, so he never got a chance to pursue it educationally. But he drew and painted every day in the house,” Dunlay recalled.
Unlike his father, though, Dunlay did have the opportunity to go to art school, but he soon realized it was not what he expected.
“It was all nonsense, really silly, silly stuff. Just throwing paint against the wall - that’s not painting. Art schools rob these kids of the most formative years of their life… and 265 grand.”
From Dunlay’s perspective there was a culmination of events from the 1930s and on that led many in the art world to this philosophy of believing that everyone is an artist and one just needs to be cared for and fostered as they explore.
“Can you teach heart surgery that way?”
“I encourage anyone to do what they want to do, I only know about this niche,” Dunlay said as he puts his hands up and shrugs, “But the art world is a sewer pit… if you go into it thinking that you are going to impress the people that control it and make a lot of money, you’re going to be let down. I encourage people to be their own entrepreneurs and not rely on being discovered. No one is going to discover you unless you’re a convenience for them - then you can be used and abused. That’s the world.”
A phone starts ringing on the red couch. It’s Dunlay’s. He asks to be excused as he answers the phone for his wife. He explains that she is helping with the open house. There is a table set out in the hallway with drinks and snacks. “Help yourself,” he told us as we came in earlier. And so I did.
“There is one salvation in art,” Dunlay said after he hung up, “It’s nature. This type of work, the traditional style, is based on the observation of nature. For 500 years this has been successful because there’s a consistent effort to paint nature truthfully in the way it appeared. When one is honest and sincere in that way every work is individual. But if you don't have a background or real grounding and you want to be an individual, it’s a paradox - you can’t do it. What is being individual? Everything that’s been done has been done. How are you going to stick out? Go see a sunset. They’re the same every night but they’re wildly different in the context of being the same.”
“Art shouldn’t be about breaking the chain of tradition,” Dunlay said just before quoting the writer-painter, Kenyon Cox:
“[The Classic Spirit] wishes to add link by link to the chain of tradition, but it does not wish to break the chain”
“To break it would mean that you’ve lost thousands of years of what’s come before it,” Dunlay concluded.
“I chose to make a living in painting, but I also chose to paint well.” Earning a living by making art and making great art are not the same thing in Thomas Dunlay’s eyes. “Selling a picture is all about selling confidence.” And so Dunlay has made for himself a successful career selling original art and teaching others this tradition.
He sells high-quality prints on his website as well, my personal favorite is “Skating In The Park.”
Dunlay now teaches 7 pupils and was especially excited to show us the early work of a young man who recently escaped from Cuba for a more opportunistic life, to which Dunlay said, “He’s going to be the best Cuban-American painter in the world in a few years.”
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