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Dunn, John Gibson Temperance Pledge, 1851


John G. Dunn was the son of George H. Dunn, a well-known state official. He decided early to become an artist and studied with Jacob Cox; he went to Cincinnati in 1842 with Cox to open a studio. Cox returned to Indianapolis in 1843. Dunn later received a medical degree from a college in Cincinnati. Before he started a practice, however, he began service in the Mexican War as an assistant surgeon in Company K, Third Regiment, Indiana Volunteers. Following military service he seems to have spent a few years painting in Indianapolis. By 1851 he was living in Lawrenceburg, in Dearborn County, dividing his time among medicine, mechanical inventions, painting, and poetry. He went to Louisiana after 1855 and died in New Orleans.

According to the art historian Wilbur Peat, Cox described Dunn as “a genius with more ill-jointed, badly directed talent than any man I ever saw. His ideas on color were admirable—exquisite; his invention was wonderful, but he never carried a picture to completion. He was somewhat of a poet, too, but wild and erratic to the last degree: His death, I fear, was the result of dissipation, as he was given to terrible sprees.”

  • Temperance Pledge, 1851
  • 40 1/8″ x 33″
  • Indianapolis Museum of Art
  • Keywords: paintings, narrative, oil on canvas
  • Subjects: people, men, women, hands, hats

The temperance movement was at its zenith at the time this painting was completed, and it was a dominant theme across all forms of art and literary expression. This painting uses religious symbolism to convey a message—the devil equated with liquor, the woman as the temperance force, the written pledge as the first step for the afflicted male. Money spent on drinking deprived a family of the necessities of life. The obvious pain and tension depicted in this painting are made even more powerful by the knowledge of Dunn’s own problem with liquor.

This is one of only two works by Dunn known to be completed. The use of color is quite good: the orange draws the eye across the painting, connecting the three conflicting parties; the light tones on the faces highlight emotion and the light tones on the hands draw attention to the pledge, in shadow and unsigned; and the blue highlights on hat, collar, and mint julep glass further emphasize the connected but conflicting figures.

Some Points To Consider

  • Ask students to describe the emotions conveyed by the expressions on the people’s faces. (Art 4.3.1)
  • Ask students to name some contemporary social problems that find expression through art forms. (Art 4.3.2)
  • Point out to students that this work is almost surreal in style. The leering faces seem to be human and yet not human. Ask students if they think this style of art seems out of place for early Indiana. Why or why not? (Art 4.2.2)

Suggested Activities for Classroom Follow-Up

  • Do a painting using complementary colors. Choose a subject that makes a strong statement such as the one illustrated in this painting.