The Paintings of Dunbar Dyson Beck
Born in Delaware, Ohio in 1903, Dunbar Dyson Beck was an American painter, muralist, educator, and designer of both interiors and exteriors, as well as theatrical sets and costumes. He studied at Northwestern University in Chicago before earning his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Yale University in 1926. Beck was invited to teach at Yale during the following academic year. In 1927, he won the prestigious Prix de Rome for his painting “Adoration”. This scholarship enabled Beck to spend three years studying at Rome’s American Academy and travel extensively in Europe and Africa to study traditional arts.
Upon his return to New York in 1930, Beck taught at Columbia University and then at Cooper Union’s School of Art. He began to receive several important commissions for altar paintings, murals and portraits. Beck painted a mural in 1934 for the lobby of New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. He also received a commission from Theodor Steinway to execute a gold-leaf decorative frieze on the side of a custom Steinway piano for President Roosevelt’s White House. Beck’s decoration represented the five musical forms indigenous of America: a New England barn dance, a lone cowboy playing a guitar, the Virginia reel, black field hands singing, and an Indian ceremonial dance.
Dunbar Beck’s commissioned work in New York included both mosaics and murals for the Rockefeller Center on Fifth Avenue, as well as, murals for the 1939-1940 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows- Corona Park. In the late 1930s, Beck met Eleanor McClatchy, president of the McClatchy publishing company, who recognized his talents and encouraged his relocation to Sacramento, California where he could live and work. McClatchy became Beck’s most important patron with commissions ranging from stage sets for Sacramento’s Eagle Theater to design work for the Sacramento Bee, the fifth-largest newspaper in California.
In the 1940s, Beck painted a series of eight paintings which focused on the theme of prize-fighting. These works were inspired by an unpublished play of unknown origin entitled “TheNational Ring”. In these works, Beck created the presence of a boxing match with his dramatic placement of compositional elements and his use of theatrical lighting effects. He used architectural elements, diagonal perspectives and concentric circles to create movement; his figures, with their raised fists and muscular arms, are highlighted as it they were spotlit for an unseen audience. Similar to the fight scenes painted by George Bellows, anticipation and emotional tension in Beck’s work are emphasized as details are minimized.
Settled in Sacramento, Dunbar Beck made many contributions to the local art scene, among which were the Sacramento Art Deco Society and the Sacramento Public Library Program. He also served as set designer for the Sacramento Civic Theater and became an architectural preservationist for the Sacramento area. Beck was a juror for exhibitions held at Sacramento’s Kingsley Art Club and completed murals and mosaics for local churches. He executed fourteen oil paintings depicting the “Stations of the Cross” and a series of stain glass windows for St. Rose’s Chapel in South Sacramento. Beck also executed work for churches in New York, Texas and Pennsylvania.
Dunbar Dyson Beck died of cancer, at the age of eighty-three, in February of 1986 at a Sacramento convalescent home. In addition to his work in prominent public places, Beck’s work is housed at Smith College and in private collections. His 1934 portrait of American architect William Adams Delano resides in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
Notes: The Sacramento Public Library in collaboration with the Sacramento Art Deco Society has a YouTube video, entitled “Dunbar Dyson Beck: Renaissance Master of Poverty Ridge”, that is narrated by local historian Bruce Marwick.
Top Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Dunbar Dyson Beck”, Date Unknown, Vintage Print
Second Insert Image: Dunbar Dyson Beck, “Palais des Papes, Avignon”, 1928, Watercolor on Paper, 31.8 x 23.8 cm, Private Colledtion
Third Insert Image: Dunbar Dyson Beck, “The City at Night”, Date Unknown, Oil on Canvas, 61 x 76.2 cm, Private Collection
Bottom Insert Image: Dunbar Dyson Beck, “Allegory of Charity”, 1925, Oil on Canvas, 132 x 104.1 cm, Private Collection