Treasures from the Vault: John Elwood Bundy

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

In his 1916 book, Art in Indiana, painter William Forsyth recognized John Elwood Bundy’s talent and proclaimed him as the “dean” of the Richmond Group, a collection of painters working in the environs around Richmond, Indiana.  

Although embraced as a Hoosier artist, Bundy was actually born in Guilford County, North Carolina in 1853. Five years later, Bundy’s family resettled near Monrovia, Indiana, as part of a larger westward migration of Quaker families. Many Quakers sought opportunities for bountiful farming land and a new home away from the slave owning attitudes and practices of the South.i  

Even while working on the family farm, Bundy was known to finish his chores in time to watch the sunset, foretelling a love of nature he would show in his art later. His mother was a weaver, and the resourceful youth used natural dyes for art materials until a teacher gave him a set of watercolors.  

Poet James Whitcomb Riley encouraged Bundy to pursue art after seeing examples of his drawings at a Monravia gallery space. Bundy studied briefly with Indianapolis portrait painter Barton Hays, but was largely self-taught. He gained valuable exposure to art through Lieber’s art store and gallery in Indianapolis and a trip to New York to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met). 

Early in his career, Bundy spent about ten years painting portraits, often from photographs. The FWMoA’s Portrait of Judith Nordyke (1878) is attributed to the artist. The sitter’s clothing is in neutral colors without any elaborate adornment, which would be in keeping with traditional Quaker dress. Nordyke is among the oldest Quaker family names in eastern Indiana. 

A portrait of a woman in neutral colors starting out at the viewer, a serious expression on her face.
John Elwood Bundy, American, 1853-1933. Portrait of Judith Nordyke. Oil on canvas. Gift of John Homrig, 2021.290. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Bundy got married in 1875, and he and Mary had two sons; from 1886 to 1887 they lived in Martinsville where he taught drawing and painting and continued painting portraits. In 1888 Earlham College, located in Richmond, named him head of the art department. Even after leaving this position, Bundy continued to teach privately. Maude Kaufman Eggemeyer, Glen Cooper Henshaw, and Olive Rush were among his students. 

Richmond’s first settlers were members of the Society of Friends from North Carolina in 1806. Some may wonder how the visual arts fit in with the tenets of the Quaker faith, but many of the city’s leaders in the arts were Quakers who helped Richmond become an art center.  

Bundy was key to the development of the Richmond Art Association (now the Richmond Art Museum) which held their first exhibition in 1898. The association provided a vital exhibition venue for area artists but also presented work by major artists from across the country and even internationally. Newspapers in Philadelphia and Los Angeles were full of praise. Talking to a New York Times reporter, the president of the National Academy of Design commented: “’Have you ever been to Richmond, Indiana? No? Never even heard of it? A good many persons don’t know the name but all artists do. Richmond has one of the best exhibitions in the country. I wish New York could compare with it.’”ii  

Situated near the Whitewater River, Richmond attracted artists as early as 1870. These were locals who gathered together and sketched outdoors around east-central Indiana known as the Rambler’s Sketch Club. A Richmond Art Association exhibition catalogue identified the local artists as the “Richmond Group” in 1903. 

Although not known as a printmaker, Bundy collaborated with writer Clarence Mills Burkholder by providing illustrations for Fond Recollections: A Souvenir of Earlham and Regions of the Whitewater (1891). The volume is filled with delicately etched sketches. Sadly, this is Bundy’s only known foray into printmaking. He painted landscapes in oil, primarily close to home.   

After teaching for eight years at Earlham College, the artist was determined to focus on his art full time. Bundy was drawn to the quiet interior of the woods or a tree-lined road rather than sweeping panoramas; his favorite was the beech tree. Despite travels to northern Michigan and southern California, he remained primarily inspired by the Indiana countryside.  

In the FWMoA’s untitled watercolor, below, numerous thin strokes of browns, grays, and greens build up the highly textured bark. Feathery brush work comprises the shrubs and grass. Bundy skillfully captured the sunlight that filtered through the trees and the cast shadows along the trail, which guides the viewer’s eye into the landscape. Measuring 20×18”, the watercolor rivals the size of an oil painting.  

A watercolor of a tree-lined dirt path with a forest in the background. Along the path is a wooden fence.
John Elwood Bundy, American, 1853-1933. Unknown. Watercolor on paper. Gift of Alice C. and Francis R. Thompson, 2020.154. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

In 1922, Bundy expressed, in retrospect, his great admiration for the work of George Inness. The FWMoA’s Landscape in wash and pastel is an intimate sketch at 4 ½ x 10 1/16” and shares an affinity with his forebear, as seen in a comparison with a painting by Inness (below) at sunrise in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both artists chose a transitional time of day when forms on the horizon become silhouetted and hazy. The classical stillness contributes to a sense of peacefulness and tranquility.  

A sunset landscape of trees along a body of water.
John Elwood Bundy, American, 1853-1933. Landscape. Wash and pastel on paper, 1901. Theodore F. Theime Collection, 1948.05. Image courtesy of FWMoA.
A sunrise painting of a glen with a few trees and a single, dark figure in the foreground.
George Inness, American, 1825-1894. Sunrise. Oil on canvas, 1887. Metropolitan Museum of Art [pubic domain] 

In a letter Bundy wrote to a friend he expressed his sense of wonder as he recalled his early journey from North Carolina: “’Where the poetic feeling of solitude—of sunset and twilight—of moonlit landscape, and somber gray days—endless effects of light and shade—of countless forms in outline—of limitless wealth of color—the serpentine rivers glistening here and there in the sunlight. . . all with endless tonal effects which the painter strives to produce on canvas.’”iii 

Writer Julia May suggested a relationship between the paintings of the Richmond Group and three Quaker principles: simplicity, silence, and light. She wrote, “These principles are made manifest through formal elements, composition, and mood or emotional tone.”iv  

Interest in Bundy’s paintings grew beyond Indiana. He was included in exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum, the Hoosier Salon, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and the St. Louis World’s Fair (1904). Bundy’s paintings can be found throughout Richmond, including the Richmond Art Museum, Earlham College, Morrisson-Reeves Library, and the Richmond Community Schools.  

For further information about other artists working in the Richmond area, consult Shaun Thomas Dingwerth’s book The Richmond Group Artists

i It is interesting to note that Levi Coffin, whose home was an important Underground Railroad stop in Newport (now Fountain City), was also born in Guilford County. 

ii Shaun Thomas Dingwerth, The Richmond Group Artists (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2014), 24. 

iii Kristin U. Fedders, “Poetic Woodlands: The Art of John Elwood Bundy,”  

iv For further discussion, see Julia May’s introduction in Dingwerth, The Richmond Group Artists, 8-12. 

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