ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 58 Frank Virgil Dudley
If there were a prize awarded for the most appropriate use of prize money won in an art exhibition, Frank V. Dudley would be putting an extra awning on his studio facing Lake Michigan in the Indiana Dunes State Park down near Chesterton, for in 1921 Dudley was given the Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan medal and $500, in recognition of his painting “Duneland” in the Chicago and vicinity show. Instead of some sort of a riotous blowout the artistic temperament is supposed to demand, he took the money and built him a studio home in what he considered the most charming spot of the region he loved to paint, and he has been living there ever since, nine months of each year, coming into Chicago only in the dead of winter when it gets too uncomfortable — even for his hard fingers — to lay the kindling for a zero-morning fire.
In 1921, there was no Indiana Dunes State Park there. Duneland, in that region, was as wild as when the Indians had left it a hundred years before, under pressure of civilization, except that it had been cut over once, just after the Chicago fire, when pines in all the Midwest region were felled to help repair the ravages.
The younger pines, oaks, and yellow poplars had grown up to take their place in the 50 years. Old stumps had rotted away, and Tecumseh himself, coming back, might have mistaken the forests and the sand dunes for the identical appearance they presented when his braves came through to meet on the banks of the Wabash in fight William Henry Harrison. Dudley has picked up some 49 arrowheads dropped by the Indians along the trail that passed the bluff on which his house is built.
But while Indiana had not appropriated the land for a state park by 1921, the federal government had had its eye on it. Duneland, in that region, was and is one of the few “primitive” forest areas in the middle west, unspoiled by civilization.
An agitation was started early in this century to make of it a national park. In 1917 there was staged on Waverly Beach a great dunes pageant, sponsored by the Prairie Club, the Friends of Our Native Landscape and several other organizations, to further the project. The pageant dealt with the history of the region, which had been under five flags. About 800 actors participated and some 45,000 went out from Chicago and from all northern Indiana, down as far as Indianapolis.
Despite the efforts of Thomas Wood Stevens, who wrote and directed the pageant, and of the enthusiasm of the crowds and gathered, the project came to naught. For, just then, the United States became intent on winning the world war, and all other projects were forgotten.
But Frank V. Dudley didn’t forget. He had started painting the dunes several years before when on hikes with the Prairie Club. His friends had laughed at him. Nobody wanted to buy pictures of that kind of scenery. They wanted civilized pictures with cows.
A year after the pageant, Dudley, who had refused to keep still, was invited by Director Eggers to give a show of his paintings at the Art Institute, turning over to him one of the biggest galleries. Dudley hung 30 pictures, calling them simply “western scenes” and inviting visitors to “guess where.” The Rock Mountain regions and the Pacific Coast were favored in the guessing. Most Chicagoans were astonished when they discovered such with and beautiful spots existed just around the bend of the lake.
Chicago, until then, had scarcely known its dunes – an ignorance not shared, however, by the scientists of Europe. Duneland was a region of wonder to the botanists for its 1,400 specimens of wild flowers, some of them unique, some akin to plants of the tropics, miraculously growing this far north, and to the geologists for glacial debris.
Dudley’s exhibition of 1918 had much to do with Chicago dunes conscious, and he has been hammering at his “propaganda” for the region, through his pictures ever since.
Dudley knows as well as anybody that paintings are “nature seen through a temperament,” and he doesn’t neglect the poetic touch. But he is up against a comic terror — that same Prairie Club of which he is still a member and which still goes hiking through the dunes.
They know every blade of grass that grows down there, laments Dudley, “and let me omit a blade or put in an extra one, to my peril.”
Dudley drove out from Chicago to paint his pictures until he had the luck in 1921 to win the Logan prize and to be able to build his studio.
About 1925, the state of Indiana, more appreciative of the region than the federal government or better able to make the move, bought three miles of lakefront and the land back of it for a considerable distance, and established the present State Park.
Dudley’s little tract of land was embraced in the purchase, but the State, considering him and his studio one of the genuine “attractions” of the place, let him stay. It collects “rent” from him now and then in form of a painting for the Commonwealth’s collection.
Dudley and his wife hold “open house” there every summer Sunday, with thousands of tourists dropping in in the course of a season. Two hotels, a bathing beach, pavilions, campgrounds, parking spots and picnic grounds, attracting as many as 6,000 to 8,000 people on a clear Sunday afternoon, are in the immediate neighborhood.
Dudley has become known the nation over as “The Painter of the Dunes.”
During the nine months immediately preceding the zero period of the last winter, Dudley studied his surroundings day by day, spring, summer, autumn, and in the first light snowfall, producing a series of more than 30 new pictures, comprising something of a pictorial diary he calls “Around the Year in the Dunes.” These constitute his exhibition now current at the Chicago Galleries Association. They are the mature emotional expression of a region he loves with a devotion Monet felt for his flower gardens.
Here is something of a creed he has been jotting down during this most recent summing up of the dunes: “I believe the artist, through his study and close contact with the landscape, is enabled to see more and feel more than the joyous messages of nature and that his real mission in life should be to interpret and reveal these truths that all may see and experience the same emotional reactions as does the artist himself.
“I believe in representative painting, not too literal but understandable, with a wholesome respect for the fundamentals of drawing, color values, and craftsmanship.
“I do not believe that beauty in nature is ‘sweet sentimentality.’ I think one of the greatest of God’s gifts to humanity is the beauty and the joy in the ever-changing moods of nature. Yet the great majority of us go through life unmindful of it, taking it as a matter of course, utterly blind to a source of very great happiness.
“There is tragedy enough in life — why paint it?”
Dudley was born at Delavan, Wis., 1868. His father, a housepainter and interior decorator, expert in wood graining, was a deaf mute, the first pupil to enter the Wisconsin State School for the Deaf established at Delavan. His mother, also deaf and speechless, went to Delavan from her birth place, Bristol, INd., to become an instructor in the school.
Dudley, as a youth, assisted his father and became quite expert as a decorative painter. When a commercial artist from Chicago, Albert McCoy, started classes in Delavan, Dudley was one of his students. So was Adolph Shulz who also came to Chicago in later years and who, like Dudley, has won fame as an “explorer” for as Dudley “discovered” the dunes, so Shulz “discovered” Brown County, Indiana.
In McCoy’s class, Dudley gave particular attention to engraving on wood. He made such progress as to land a promising job in Chicago with one of the biggest of engraving houses. But when he got here, the owner of the plant strongly advised him against accepting. Zinc etching by photo process was just coming in, and this old wood engraver was farsighted enough to see that the “woodcut” was done.
Dudley got another commercial art job and spent his nights studying at the Art Institute. For recreation, particularly Saturday half-holidays and Sundays, he joined the hikers of the Prairie Club, sketching as he tramped along Lake Michigan.
He participated in various shows and won minor prizes, one as early as 1907. After winning the Logan prize in 1921 with “Duneland,” he not only built his studio but felt enough confidence to give up his commercial jobs and live by the brush.