Robert Spear Dunning was a co-founder and leader of the Fall River
School of still life painting. As a boy he was employed in a Fall River
mill. Later he worked in coastal shipping while studying art. In 1859 he
joined with John E. Grouard to form the firm of Grouard & Dunning,
artists. About 1865 he began to focus on still life paintings, although
he also made frequent trips to New Hampshire to paint landscapes. In
1870 he founded the Fall River Evening Drawing School. Bright colors and
detail characterize his style.
Dunning studied under Daniel Huntington at the National Academy of Design from 1849 to 1852, before returning to Fall River to open a studio, first concentrating on portraits and landscapes. He often sought reprieve from the bustle of the textile mills of his industrial home town and his scenes of Newport and the White Mountains of New Hampshire attest to his many travels. Dunning’s Thornton, New Hampshire captures the rolling green hills and farmlands of the New Hampshire scenery he discovered on these trips.
Around 1865, Dunning largely abandoned landscape painting to devote himself entirely to the more profitable genre of still life. His methods focused on strong color, accuracy of detail and sensitivity to the treatment of textures, and locals recalled how he made sure the Fall River grocers reserved the best pieces of fruit for him. With fellow painter John E. Grouard, Dunning established the Fall River Evening Drawing School in 1870, passing on his still life techniques to many students and followers including Bryant Chapin, Franklin H. Miller and Abbie Luella Zuill, among others. Dunning exhibited at the National Academy, the Boston Art Club and the American Art Union, and today his work can be found in the collections of the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Currier Museum of Art, the Wichita Art Museum, and the Fall River Public Library.