Robert Dunning was born in 1829. He studied with two artists in Maine before attending the National Academy of Design, where he focused on figure and portraiture painting. Dunning was employed at a mill and in costal shipping to support his studies. In 1859 he formed an artist's firm "Grouard & Dunning" but six years later, 1865, Dunning found himself more attracted to still life painting than landscapes.
Dunning is noted as a cofounder and leader of the Fall River School of still-life. His palette consisted of bright colors and his need for perfection in detail forced Dunning to spend extensive amounts of time on one painting. He exhibited his work at the NAD from 1850-80. Dunning also opened the Fall River Evening Drawing School, whose students were predecessors of the Fall River School. Dunning died in 1905.