Harvey Dunn was born on March 7, 1884 in a claim shanty near Manchester, South Dakota. He attended a one-room schoolhouse and in 1901 entered South Dakota Agricultural College (South Dakota State University) as a preparatory student. Ada Caldwell, his art instructor, encouraged him to further his education at the Chicago Art Institute. While attending the Institute from 1902 to 1904 he met Howard Pyle, America's foremost illustrator.
After studying with Pyle, Dunn opened his own studio in Wilmington, Delaware in 1906. Soon he was illustrating for magazines including Scribner's, Harper's, Collier's Weekly, Century, Outing and The Saturday Evening Post and for numerous books.
As Dunn grew in stature as an illustrator he became interested in helping other artists as Ada Caldwell and Howard Pyle had helped him. In 1915, Dunn and fellow artist Charles Shepard Chapman established the Leonia School of Illustration. "All that I am really doing is carrying on the Howard Pyle idea…Howard Pyle did not teach art. Art cannot be taught, any more than life can be taught. His main purpose was to quicken our souls that we might render service to the majesty of simple things."
Dunn's career as an illustrator and teacher was interrupted when he was chosen to be an artist for the American Expeditionary Forces, recording the gruesome realities of the war for propaganda, recruitment and historical purposes.
After returning from the war, Dunn moved his family to Tenafly, New Jersey and reestablished himself as an illustrator. He also became more involved in teaching. Former student Saul Tepper wrote, "Though he resumed his professional career with his usual energy, he began more and more to turn to his second role; that of teaching."
Although Harvey Dunn moved far away from the prairie of South Dakota and became a successful illustrator and teacher, he never forgot the land of his birth. He made many summer trips to South Dakota and continued to produce paintings capturing the Dakota pioneer heritage for magazines illustrations and covers, but most notably for his own gratification.
On October 29, 1952 Harvey Dunn died at his home in Tenefly, NJ. Harvey Dunn once told his students that a picture should have four dimensions: length, breadth, depth and an undefinable quality called spirit. He painted as he taught, thus the spirit of Dunn lives on in his paintings which he left to the people of South Dakota – and to the world.