These days we find the Indiana Dunes beautiful, refreshing, and maybe even “the earthly locus of a vision incorporating peace, oneness with nature, and brotherhood,” as historians J. Ronald and Joan Gibb Engel put it.  But less than a century ago many saw them as sandy wastes unfit for anything except  steel mills. Artist and conservationist Frank Dudley (1868-1957), who painted landscapes of dunes almost exclusively for four decades, is now joining the roster of those, including Jens Jensen, who changed things around.

More than 200 of Dudley’s works are on display through November 30 at the Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University, and the exhibition’s catalog is now a lavishly illustrated large-format book, The Indiana Dunes Revealed: The Art of Frank V. Dudley. (The book includes a biography of Dudley by the Illinois Institute of Technology’s James R. Dabbert; a condensed version with images appeared in the American Art Review (PDF) last summer.)

Dudley’s story is replete with paradoxes. Just as the creation of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore 40 years ago was sparked by Illinois U.S. Senator Paul Douglas, this book is being published by the University of Illinois.  Dudley’s conservationism is now seen as a progressive cause. But from today’s standpoint he fails to be a consistently progressive prophet: he stubbornly opposed modern art and idealized generic Indians in private and public performances. The outdoor “masques” and “pageants” that inspired him now seem overdone.

Much as Abraham Lincoln was an ambitious lawyer and canny politician as well as the savior of the union, Dudley was both an ardent lover of the dunes and an artist who found them an ideal niche in which to earn a living.  Writes Chicago art historian Wendy Greenhouse:

“For artists of Dudley’s generation . . . the rise of both landscape painting and Impressionism were closely tied to the emergence of familiar, Midwestern subjects,” and the realization that “their own home landscape — authentic if humble — could be the vehicle for genuine artistic expression. . . . The same qualities, in turn, promised to appeal to local buyers. . . . As modernism made increasing inroads on the Chicago art scene in the early 1920s, Dudley found unfailing support among the aesthetically conservative, civic-minded Chicagoans represented by such groups.”

Near the end of his life Dudley was an advisor to the new Save the Dunes Council, which continues to watch over the “sacred sands.”