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William Gedney Bunce

1840 - 1916

Birth-Place:CT, Hartford
Death-Place:CT, Hartford
William Gedney Bunce (1840-1916)
( A Hartford Biography)
© Gary W. Knoble, 2014

During his lifetime, William Gedney Bunce was world-renowned for his tonalist Venetian landscapes. His fame increased dramatically in 1889 when Queen Victoria commissioned a landscape from him. He spent his adult life between his native Hartford and Venice. He was a friend of the architect Stanford White and the sculptor August Saint Gaudens, both of whom made many frames for his paintings. Contemporary critics referred to him as an equal of James McNeil Whistler, whom he knew in Venice.

Bunce was born September 10, 1840 in Hartford, Connecticut. He was the son of James M. Bunce and Elizabeth Chester. He began his art studies in Hartford in1856 with Julius T. Busch. Charles DeWolf Brownell and John Lee Fitch were also studying with Busch around this time. Bunce fought in the civil war in the First Connecticut Cavalry, primarily in the Shenandoah Valley. After two years of fighting, he was discharged due to a leg wound, which left him with a permanent limp. His near contemporary, the painter John F. Jameson who was born in Hartford in 1842, was not as fortunate. Jameson also fought in the Civil War in the First Connecticut Cavalry and died in the infamous Andersonville prison in 1864. Since their service overlapped and they were both Hartford born painters, it is certainly possible that they knew each other. After his discharge in 1863, Bunce moved to New York to resume his studies. For four years he studied at Cooper Union. He also studied landscape painting with William Hart, accompanying him on a sketching trip to Maine during the summer of 1864.

In 1867 he moved to Europe to continue his studies. He stayed in Europe for twelve years studying in Paris, Dusseldorf, Davos, Antwerp, and Rome. In Paris he shared a studio with August Saint Gaudens, whom he had met earlier in Rome. They remained life-long friends. St. Gaudens told an amusing story of their meeting:

“World renowned sculptor August Saint Gaudens met Bunce soon after he had arrived in Rome. St. Gaudens had been informed of a fine studio that was being occupied by a young dying man. St. Gaudens met the supposedly fatally ill young man who turned out to be Bunce. St. Gaudens later commented: ‘We became fast friends. This was thirty-six years ago and still he is alive, as sound as a drum, as lively as a cricket, and likely to outlive those of us who expected to attend his funeral and occupy his studio in Rome.’” (Cedar Hill Cemetery Foundation)

Bunce is generally considered a member of Munich School and was part of the Frank Duveneck circle. While in Paris, he met Charles Noel Flagg, also of Hartford. They remained friends for life. 1871 he began to send paintings back home from Rome for exhibitions in New York and Hartford.

He returned from Europe in 1879 and established a studio in New York, but he retained his ties with Hartford visiting often. H. W. French in his book, “Art and Artists in Connecticut “, written in 1879 observes of Bunce that, “Many of his paintings are owned in Hartford.” Hildegard Cummings in her Catalogue for the 1989 Exhibition, “The Hartford Art Colony” states of Bunce that, “His paintings were bought by Hartford people, discussed in the local papers, and exhibited in Hartford exhibitions. Like that of Church, his career was an inspiration to every artist in town”.

In New York, he joined the Tile Club with Saint Gaudens, Stanford White, William Merritt Chase, Elihu Veeder, and Frank Millet. His nickname in the club was “the Bishop”. Both St. Gaudens and White designed many of the frames for Bunces’s paintings. An excellent example of a St. Gaudens frame, which holds several of Bunce’s Venetian landscapes, is in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. A review from 1880 praised his Venetian paintings comparing them with those of Albert Pinkham Ryder.

Bunce continued to travel back and forth to Venice regularly until the First World War. He was apparently of a demanding nature. There is a report from 1881 that because of his “cantankerous nature”, the Venetian gondoliers refused to carry him. His friend Joseph Pennell, the well-known illustrator describes Bunce in Venice at this time.

“Dear old Bunce, painting sunsets at sunrise and moonlights on cloudy days from his broken back ‘gandler’, which, after forty years, about forty words of Italian, many of them naughty words” (Cleveland, page 101)

In 1889, while staying in Biarritz, he met Queen Victoria. She commissioned a landscape, which added considerably to his reputation.

In 1891 the American painter Robert Henri, later an influential teacher at the Art Students League in New York, met Bunce in Venice and was strongly influenced by his innovative use of the palette knife and his fingers in his paintings.

Bunce was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1902 and named an Academician in 1907. He was a Charter Member of the Society of American Artists.

His New York studio was located at 80 East Washington Sq.. His Connecticut friend John Henry Twachtman also had a studio in the same building.

In 1908, Bunce moved back to Hartford to live with his sister and brother-in-law Ellen and Archibald Welch. He opened a studio in Hartford in the same building as Charles Noel Flagg who was teaching the Connecticut Art Students League out of his (Flagg’s) studio. James Britton, a student of Flagg’s, in a 1913 article for The Hartford Courant called Bunce “Our own American Turner”. He later recalled Bunce and painting his portrait in his diaries.

November 4, 1923
(Britton is at Mitchell’s Gallery in New York) All around the walls very fine paintings. Here is a new Hassam, a Gaspard, Gedney Bunce – Venice. It is strange that Bunce a Connecticut American hit upon Venice. He used to say ‘Huh, they say I paint Venice. Course I do. But I paint other things too. Why one of my best paintings is ‘Brooklyn Bridge’”. I had a great time with Bunce when I painted his portrait. He’d jump up every minute or so to come around and see it. He was a great enthusiast. When I painted Noel Flagg, Bunce, who was a studio neighbor, dropped in and exclaimed – ‘Magnificent, you ought to make more money than Sargent. But paint important people, paint me.’ I did paint him and he proved the sincerity of his remarks by buying the portrait. I did a second one which is now in the Morgan Museum in Hartford. Down at Macbeth’s a superb Murphy. Murphy and Bunce had something in common. Original unique. Murphy Weir and Bunce.. (Volume XXXIX, page 105)

During the last years of his life he spent half of his time in Venice and the other half in Hartford with his sister.

On Sunday, November 5, 1916, William Gedney Bunce was struck and killed by an automobile (some reports say a street car) on Farmington Avenue in Hartford, one of the first automobile fatalities in Hartford.

His New York Times obituary compared him with Blakelock and Ryder.

New York Times November 7, 1916

“Much of the English repute of William Gedney Bunce, the American landscape painter who died in Hartford on Sunday, was directly due to Queen Victoria’s fondness for his brilliant sunsets. The favor of a monarch has ever been valuable to the artist. But the often perplexing taste of the amiable Queen did not go astray in her appreciation of our great colorist. Bunce was no Marie Corelli of the fine arts, but a painter who deserved all the distinction he received in his lifetime. Whether the present ownership of a Bunce or two will turn out in the future to be equivalent to having something laid away for a rainy day remains to be seen. Some English dealers have been storing Bunces for years. This painter ranks with Blakelock , the tragedy of whose life has been so lately a matter of wide public comment, and Ryder, but the only strong similarity in the work of the three is due to their inborn sense of color and the frequently turbulent splendor of it in their paintings. Bunce’s pictures were not designed to be likenesses of nature, but they expressed the feelings which possessed him under the influence of some of nature’s most glowing moods. The circumstances of his death are sad. When such a man is killed in a street accident which need not have happened, it causes a general feeling of resentment against the perilous condition of the thoroughfares. But Mr. Bunce had lived long, had accomplished his task, and delivered his message”.

Royal Cortissoz, an influential New York art critic, considered Bunce a rival of Whistler.

He is buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford. His fellow Hartford painter John S. Jameson, who died in the Civil War in 1864, is also buried in Cedar Hill.

Bunce left his paintings to his brother-in-law A. A. Welch.

Two of his closest friends, Charles Noel Flagg and Henry Ward Ranger also died at almost exactly the same time. Ranger died on November 7, the day Bunce’s obituary appeared in The New York Times, and Flagg died a few days later on November 11th, also in Hartford. Ranger is reported to have had ten works by Bunce in his collection when he died.

Britton’s portrait of Bunce, was purchased by the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1930. Britton tells an interesting story of this portrait in his unpublished autobiography.

“Mention of Bunce brings me to the recollection of six portraits I painted of him while he had a studio adjoining mine in Hartford in 1908 and 9. The first of these was a commission which Bunce gave me during a wave of excitement brought on by his seeing me at work on the first of my portraits of Noel Flagg – the one with the velvet coat. ‘Whew!’. Old Bunce exclaimed ‘that is the finest velvet painting I ever saw.’ And when I came to paint his portrait he insisted upon being done in a velvet coat and went in to Flagg’s studio in the same building and borrowed the coat. The second portrait I did of Bunce, the one in a blue painting blouse which was bought by the Morgan Art Museum from me in 1930 is similar to the first one which was in Bunces’s possession when he died and has since been willed to the Museum by his beneficiary. The story of this canvas is rather interesting. I painted the portrait on a piece of cotton duck which had a thick coat of primer paint on either side. It was extremely stiff and difficult to work on. It has been part of and old screen made by Noel Flagg and I painted the head of Bunce on it because I had been told that it was wanted by a particular ‘merchant prince’ of Hartford. When I was told later that the great nobody who happened to be rich had changed his mind about buying this picture, I determined never to paint a picture on order without receiving a substantial advance on the price of it before beginning to work. I literally threw this picture of Bunce around for years, partly to soften the stiff canvas and partly because my experience with the recanting ‘patron’ who ordered it made it a sorry object to contemplate. When I went to live in old Farmington (Connecticut) and had a little house in which to begin life with my eighteen year old wife, I placed the portrait of Gedney Bunce face up on the floor just inside the front door so that we as well as visitors could walk on it. The idea was not to do Bunce dishonor but to wear down the heavily painted surface and possibly soften the horrible stiff canvas upon which it was painted. The experience did the picture good and when I rescued the thing from the floor, put it on a stretcher, and into a frame (a fine black one carved by my friend Gernhardt of Boston) an amount of ‘quality’ such as my little dear Teresa Bernstein would pronounce ‘exquisite quality,’ appeared. All it needed was a little retouching, a little scrubbing with turpentine, and a little varnish. I began to think better of it and I am sure that it had a place in the exhibition I had in that Farmington house before leaving it.”
(Autobiography, page 71)

Ask/ART website, Butler Institute of American Art
Britton, James, “Diaries, in James Britton Papers”, Smithsonian Archives of American Art,
Cedar Hill Cemetery Foundation
Cleveland, David A., “A History of American Tonalism: 1880-1920” , 2010
Cummings, Hildegard, “The Hartford Art Colony 1880-1900”, The Connecticut Gallery Inc., 1989
Dearinger, David B. (Editor) “Paintings and Sculpture in the Collection of the National Academy of Design, 2004”, (Volume 1 page 162)
Everett, Patricia R. , “John S. Jameson (1842-1864”, American Art Journal, Vol. 15, No. 2, Spring 1983, pp. 53-59
French, H. W. “Art and Artists in Connecticut”, 1879, Page 148
Kornhauser, Elizabeth M., “American Paintings Before 1945 in the Wadsworth Atheneum”, 1996, pg. 158-166
“Connecticut at the World’s Fair-Report of the Commissioners from Connecticut to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition – St. Louis 1904”, Page 162