William Gedney Bunce (1840 – 1916)

Born in Hartford, Connecticut, William Gedney Bunce served in the Civil War, 1st Connecticut Cavalry. He was discharged after two years due to a leg wound, which resulted in a limp the rest of his life.

Bunce began his art education under Julius T. Busch, a German-born artist residing in Hartford. After the Civil War, he moved to New York City where he studied under William Hart.

By 1867 he had moved abroad. He spent more than a decade studying in various European cities. He sojourned in London, Paris and Rome. World renowned sculptor Augustus 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.

While in Rome in 1871, Bunce’s first paintings were sent back to the United States for exhibition, but it was not until his 1879 return to New York City that he received critical acclaim. His paintings were unique in that he composed them with a palette knife rather than a paintbrush. In 1880 his evocative Venetian canal scenes were praised, but a year later there were already warnings from the press of mannerism and unmotivated repetition. Nevertheless, he was recognized for his sense of color and apparent simplistic design.

Until World War I, Bunce divided his time between Venice and the United States, but he was more associated with Venice. Over the years he became something of an institution there. Acquaintances like Robert Blum and William Merritt Chase joked about his proud and cantankerous nature, which in 1881 had caused Venetian gondoliers to refuse him their services. But he also had loyal promoters and patrons, such as the dealer Daniel Cottier, the architect Stanford White, and Queen Victoria of England who had ordered one of his Venetian landscapes.

Bunce kept a New York studio on Washington Square for many years but ultimately moved back to Hartford, where he built a new studio and continued to paint until 1916. Bunce died on November 5, 1916 when he was hit by a car while crossing the street – one of the first victims of an automobile accident in Hartford.

Photo Credit: Portrait of William Gedney Bunce by Frank Duveneck (1848-1919), National Gallery of Art