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Texas History Features
Corrida de la Sandia aka Dia De San Juan (The Watermeon Race) by Jean Louis Theodore Gentilz, 1848, oil on canvas.

By J.P. Bryan and Jamie Christy, PhD

Texas inspired some of the world’s finest artists. Their works, thematically and stylistically varied and accomplished in a wide range of mediums, capture the majesty and wonder of the American West in a vivid and diverse display that move the intellect and emotions of the viewer.

Artists such as Jean Louis Théodore Gentilz (1819–1906), José Arpa y Perea (1858–1952), Porfirio Salinas Jr. (1910–1973), Dawson Dawson-Watson (1864–1939), Robert Jenkins Onderdonk (1852–1917), his son Robert Julian Onderdonk (1882–1922), Karl Friedrich Hermann Lungkwitz (1813–1891), Friedrich Richard Petri (1824–1857), Charles “Frank” Reaugh (1860–1945), Elisabet Ney (1833–1907), Stephen Seymour Thomas (1868–1956), Tom Lea (1907–2001), Alexandre Hogue (1898–1994), Florence McClung (1894–1992), and Lloyd Goff (1917–1982) created unforgettable works in Texas. All brought to the place the talent their profession demanded, but the land, the animals, and the people they beheld there provided them with profound inspiration for the task at hand.

Not all of the artists who shaped their works with things Texan were born or died in the state; but for a time most called it home, and for the remainder of their lives it remained a place where their hearts lingered. French, Spanish, English, and German artists, among so many others, became Texans by either choice or chance, and a large body of their work bears visual testimony to their enduring affection for the region.

A Laborer by Jose Arpa y Perea, 1903, oil on canvas.

Many of Texas’s early artists flocked to San Antonio, which stood for years as the last settlement before the endless expanse of unforgiving West Texas frontier. Born in Paris, France, Théodore Gentilz came to Texas in 1844, to serve as a surveyor for Henri Castro’s colony after studying at the L’École Impériale de Mathématique et de Dessin (The Imperial School of Mathematics and Drawing). Despite his inclusion in Paris’s sophisticated inner circle of artists and intellectuals, he painted what he observed in the rugged Southwest exactly as he saw it: the San Antonio missions, Mexican ranchers and cowboys riding through town, village dances, street scenes, and the indigenous population.

Gentilz’s canvases captured old Tejano social and cultural heritage in works such as Corrida de la Sandía (San Antonio, 1848) and historically important events such as the Battle of the Alamo. Although Gentilz painted with the technical precision of an engineer draftsman, his pieces also express the passion for Texas that led him to teach painting at St. Mary’s College in San Antonio for many years.

The Spaniard José Arpa, another well-known European painter who lived in San Antonio for a time, expertly depicted the light and shadows of Texas in its bluebonnet-clad landscapes as well as on the worn faces of its inhabitants. His A Laborer (San Antonio, 1903) is a haunting Christ-like depiction of a lined, haggard local worker.

Arpa’s Texas art is timeless, but he made another important contribution as director of his own art school in San Antonio, giving classes there, as well as outdoor instruction in the hills of Bandera and serving as an inspiration for other would-be artists, such as the largely self-taught Central-Texas landscapist, Porfirio Salinas, who watched him sketch on the streets and in the fields of San Antonio.

British born Dawson Dawson-Watson, a landscape artist who could rival Van Gogh in terms of Post-Impressionist style, also chose Texas for a large body of his work. A child prodigy, the Royal Academy in London accepted his painting at the age of sixteen, and he became one of the original members of the famous Impressionist colony in Giverny, France.

Rather than the French countryside, the majority of his canvases captured the rugged terrain of the Hill Country and semi-arid Texas cacti in delicate colors in such paintings as Cotton Pickers (1927) and Flowers of Silk (1928). After living on three continents, Dawson-Watson set up a permanent studio in San Antonio in 1927 and remained there until his death.

Maryland native Robert Jenkins Onderdonk and his son, Robert Julian Onderdonk, found themselves drawn to the area as well, discovering the beauty of the bluebonnets in the Texas Hill Country and painting them with dramatic light, dark colors, and breathtaking precision. Perhaps the most interesting of Robert Jenkins Onderdonk’s works, Market Plaza (San Antonio, 1880) portrays the colorful hustle and bustle and lively faces of San Antonio’s Market Square.

Prussian and German artists also gathered in Texas. Hermann Lungkwitz, painter and photographer, immigrated to the United States in 1850 and settled

Cotton pickers by Dawson-Watson, 1927, oil on canvas.

in the Texas Hill Country. In that region, he rendered the hard, rocky terrain in locations such as the Pedernales River, combining the fine-line drawing and exactness of a photographer with the flair of a Romanticist. His favorite subjects were Bear Mountain, Enchanted Rock, and the Guadalupe, Pedernales, Llano, and Colorado rivers, and his portrayal of these places contain unforgettably luminous rocks and bright, earthy greens and blues.

Lungkwitz remained in Texas, teaching art, mostly in Austin and Galveston, for the remainder of his life. His brother-in-law, Richard Petri, drawn to the region’s German settlers and Native Americans, rendered them in the midst of their daily lives. Petri’s Portrait of Susanna Queisser (1850) is a soulful, delicate representation of a German child.

Another German, sculptor Elisabet Ney, well known for her strong statues of Stephen Austin and Sam Houston displayed in the Capitol building in Austin, as well as for the likeness of Texas’s Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston in the State Cemetery, established a studio in that city in the early 1890s. Ney explained the move across the Atlantic saying she had spent her early years capturing the great men of Europe and she had decided to go to Texas and sculpt the wild men there.

At her studio in Austin, named Formosa, she created incredible plaster and marble tributes to Texan revolutionaries and statesmen, as well as majestic and imposing statues of mythical characters, such as Lady Macbeth and Prometheus. Fully embodying the Texan spirit of independence and uniqueness, Ney refused to take her husband’s name when they married, wore pants instead of skirts and dresses, and rode her horse astride instead of side-saddle. She remains one of Texas’s most remarkable artists.

No discussion of Texas art would be complete without inclusion of Frank Reaugh, who travelled from Illinois to Texas with his family in a covered wagon at the age of sixteen.

The Reaughs settled in Terrell, near present-day Dallas, in 1876, among one of the most recognizable symbols of Texas: the longhorn steer. Reaugh, known affectionately as the “Rembrandt of the Longhorn,” found inspiration in the giant animals’ sturdiness, their ability to adapt to the harshness of the Texas terrain, and in their beauty as Texan survivors.

Market Plaza by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, 1880, oil on canvas.

In addition to his steer portraits, Reaugh painted the landscapes and long views of Texas with pastels that truly captured the astounding rainbow of colors that the terrain, the skies, and the vegetation presented to the inhabitant and the viewer. His pastels of deep purple and pale magenta skies, of bleached beige and burnt-orange hills and valleys, and of the silver-gray of prairie grasses stand in testament to a land, although an adopted one, with which Reaugh was deeply connected.

Reaugh imparted his love of Texas and proved an incredibly gifted teacher to many students in the area. He set up a studio in Oak Cliff (near Dallas) and, by the mid-1890s had a core group of serious students, known as the “Dallas Nine,” who would remain with him for the better part of his life and became renowned artists in their own right.

Each year for nearly four decades, Reaugh loaded supplies and students into his custom-outfitted Model T Ford and drove into the wilderness of the Texas plains and mountains, with a special interest in the Big Bend region. From these trips and from his scores of sketchbooks, Reaugh produced hundreds of pastels of Texas landscapes and Texas longhorns, which he considered to be the very symbol of the spirit of Texas: rugged, free, and enduring.

His legacy, as he undoubtedly realized, was in capturing the rapidly disappearing open natural landscape of Texas. In his will, Reaugh stated that he wished his works “to be kept together if only for historical reasons. They create the spirit of the time. They show the sky unsullied by smoke, and the broad opalescent prairies not disfigured by wire fences or other signs of man.”

Perhaps Texas’s first truly celebrated native artist was Seymour Thomas. Born in East Texas at San Augustine, he studied under Gentilz in San Antonio and was well acquainted with the Onderdonks before receiving formal training in the arts in Paris. His renderings of the Spanish missions in San Antonio are among his best-known works, true representations and vivid for the viewer. Thomas’s landscapes, less well known, are Impressionistic works in the vein of Claude Monet. Most prolific, though, were his portraits. Thomas drew his subjects—some of the most important men and women in Texas, as well as the nation—with great humanity and stunning accuracy. His image of Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto is proud and crisp, a stirring and patriotic image.

Modern and contemporary artists continued to find beauty in the Texas landscape well into the twentieth century. Tom Lea, a native of El Paso, famous


Toro Quieto by Tom Lea, 1946, watercolor, ink and pastel on paper.

for his pen-and-ink illustrations of cowboys and bullfights, is also celebrated for his murals. They depict the American Southwest in stunning detail, from missionaries to cattle drives. Lea’s landscape mural, Southwest (1956), his gift to El Paso’s then-new public library, depicts the desert southwest landscape and vegetation in startling simplicity. The mountains and clouds are composed of broad, irregular geometric shapes, while the cacti form almost a portrait in the center of the work. The modernist approach to the West Texas landscape does not diminish it. Whereas earlier artists painted the Texas landscape intricately, Lea’s modern minimalism is almost overwhelming for the observer.

While some would argue that his greatest talent lay in his landscapes, his portraits are phenomenal. Lea captured every line and expressive detail of his subjects and refused to draw anyone less than forty years of age because he felt their faces lacked the depth and character he sought.

The Texas countryside remained a subject of interest for regionalists during the Depression and post–World War II era. Regionalists rejected city life and instead created works depicting rural scenes. Artists such as Alexandre Hogue and Florence McClung, both students of Reaugh, who painted in the 1940s, captured those images, but also noted the advance of order on the Texas wilderness. With the westward advancement of modern agriculture came fence lines, crop rows, and substantial barns. McClung’s work features the typical Texas farm in real clarity, showing rugged buildings and patchwork fields.

In Hogue’s painting, the incomprehensible size of mountains and sky is contrasted with the front gate, fence line, and entry drive to a cattle ranch. The unnatural boundaries and geometric buildings that ranchers and farmers erected on the plains and in the valleys inspired works of art that not only celebrated the Texas countryside, but also chronicled the next phase of Texas history.

A major part of that next era was the modern oil industry. Hogue and fellow regionalist Lloyd Goff, another of Reaugh’s protégées, created works that featured the discovery, extraction process, and significance of oil and its industry. Although today we think of oil refineries as suburban and industrial, early oil producers dotted the countryside and employed tough, rugged workers. The intensely modern images of oil derricks, pipelines, and machinery might seem out of place in the Texas art repertoire. Yet, those images of both the modern Texas and the modern Texan represent the same spirit of adventure, independence, and triumph over hardship that their ancestors the pioneers, the revolutionaries, the cowboys, and the ranchers held.

Texas’s art features its varied countryside with depictions of deserts, rough Hill Country, thick forests, and rugged plains. The contrasts in artistic styles mirror the contrasts in terrain. Texas is a state of paradoxes: the land is unforgiving yet perfect for cattle grazing; it is stark yet contains abundant life forms; it is both arid and hot and damp and humid.

Portrait of Susanna Queisser by Friedrich Richard Petri, 1850, graphite with chalk on paper.

The artists who came to and came from Texas portrayed and celebrated these characteristics. They also celebrated those who settled here—the rough pioneer, the immigrant, the rugged cattle rancher, the revolutionary leaders, and the oil workers.

The canvases, sketchbooks, pastels, statues, and other mediums of these great Texas artists bear visual testimony to their affection for the place and reveal to the world the history of the American West. The early cultural and population domination of New England and the Eastern Seaboard waned with the movement of people westward. American culture was transformed with the addition of the Louisiana Purchase and the annexation of Texas and the other southwestern states, pushing to the Pacific Coast. The very culture of the United States was altered and so was its art.

Artists like Gentilz, Arpa, the Onderdonks, Ney, Reaugh, and Lea, were often the first to see, let alone paint, sketch, or sculpt the earlier symbols of Texas and the American West. Appreciation of Western and Texas art forces the intellect of the observer to understand the historical connections and the times in which each artist lived. They were periods critical to the formation of this country, and they are times that can never be retrieved and can only be relived through the works of the artists who first captured them.