There is an authenticity in William Herbert Dunton's depictions of the American West that comes from his personal experience working as a cowboy, hunter, and as a lifelong avid outdoorsman. Across the Intervening Desert the Eyes of the Two Men Met in Grim Defiance is one such genuine portrayal of cowboys that was painted in 1910, when Dunton was at the peak of his career as a commercial illustrator.
The musculature of the horses in Across the Intervening Desert is testament to Dunton's academic training. Even at a young age, he was recognized for his advanced draftsmanship, and while still a teenager his drawings appeared in local newspapers in Maine, where he was raised, as well as the Boston Globe. Following school, Dunton pursued his desire for exploration and thrill-seeking adventure, traveling west to Montana. There he began an intense study of animal anatomy, carefully rendering in pencil with painstaking detail the anatomy, expression, and movement of the horses and wildlife he encountered. The young artist continued to travel throughout the West, covering territories from Oregon down to Mexico, returning to New York in the winter to a career in commercial illustration and classes at the Art Students League under the direction of Ernest L. Blumenschein.
Dunton's passionate dedication to his subject is evident in works such as Across the Intervening Desert, where he captures the appearance and movement of his animal subjects and the posturing of the riders set against a western landscape. He pays great attention to the landscape, evoking the vibrant pastel colors of the sun-filled terrain with vigorous brushwork that conveys the grit of the desert floor. The un-posed nature of the rearing horses, including one horse captured from behind, adds a drama to the composition as the viewer happens upon the men in their natural environment.
The oil paintings Dunton completed during this period around 1910 focused on capturing the spirit of the Wild West, particularly that of the Anglo cowboy, which he saw as a morally strong figure tied to the land, during a time of great urbanization in America. The cowboy figures Dunton painted during this period were often dictated by the stories he was illustrating, which exude both in text and image the heroic theme of cowboys that was popular at the time (J. Schimmel, The Art and Life of W. Herbert Dunton 1878-1936, Austin, Texas, 1984, p. 49). Across the Intervening Desert was one of four works by Dunton painted as illustrations for Randall Parrish's novel Keith of the Border: A Tale of the Plains (P. Randall, Keith of the Border: A Tale of the Plains, New York, 1910). The present work depicts the dramatic final confrontation of the protagonist, Captain Keith, with the depraved man who had framed him for murder. The scene culminates with both men shot on the desert floor and their horses rider-less. The honorable cowboy prevails when Keith's companions find the men and remove a bullet from Keith's chest to save him from the brink of death, while his foe was left dead. Across the Intervening Desert demonstrates Dunton's masterful ability to capture the drama of the Wild West as it were in the legendary days of the frontier.