Julian Onderdonk • Dawn in the Hills • Oil on Canvas (1922) • Original in the Witte Museum • San Antonio
The Feel of the Place
Texas landscape artists provide windows into our natural world.
Amy Fulkerson, chief curator of San Antonio’s Witte Museum, gives some thought to the question of whether Texas landscape painting has any acknowledged masterpieces.
She says different artists at different times rose to prominence and acclaim and may be recognized as masters of their form, such as Julian Onderdonk and José Arpa, both from the early 20th century San Antonio art scene. She points out that art is subjective in style and personal taste.
Finally, she lands on an answer.
“You know, one of the paintings that people do talk about as being important is one of Onderdonk’s last two paintings, Dawn in the Hills,” she says, and then adds a kicker: “Which is upstairs.”
Fulkerson had just spent more than an hour showing me many important works of early Texas painting in the Witte Museum art vault. Somehow, we hadn’t seen this one.
“Onderdonk had sort of moved into a new space when he was creating it, and it’s an inkling of what could have come had he not died,” she says, hinting at a new direction for the famed bluebonnet painter. “It really is beautiful, and it’s ethereal in a way that his work before was not.”
Texas art expert William Reaves has also said that Dawn in the Hills, painted in 1922, is “recognized as the masterpiece of this genre.”
I hesitate. “Um, do you think we could go back upstairs to see it?”
Fulkerson generously complies.
Admiring the painting, Fulkerson says: “I love these lavenders and blues and greens. Nothing is terribly well defined, yet we still know exactly what he’s showing us. You can almost feel the coolness of the morning. It’s not just the look of the place, it’s the feel of the place.”
Texas nature has been an essential muse for the state’s artists throughout its history. In addition to Onderdonk and Dawn in the Hills, the Texas landscape has inspired generations of painters to artistically portray our state — to give us the look of the place and the feel of the place, the place we call Texas.
Today’s Texas landscape painting scene is a vibrant one, and dozens of the state’s contemporary artists have been chosen for a special project — painting Texas state parks as part of the park system’s upcoming 100th anniversary in 2023. These works will be displayed at museum showings and included in a book by Texas A&M University Press. Who knows — maybe the next Texas landscape masterpiece will come out of it.
Their work builds on a rich history of Texas landscape art — a history that includes homegrown heroes such as Onderdonk and Porfirio Salinas and noted visitors such as John James Audubon and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Karl Hermann Lungkwitz • Above the Falls on the Pedernales River • Oil on Canvas (1883) • Courtesy of the John L. Nau III Collection of Texas Art
Reaves and Fulkerson say there’s truth to the idea that all great Texas art is landscape based.
“I think to a certain extent, that’s true,” Fulkerson says, “because what makes something ‘Texas’ is to root it in place, so if you're going to qualify something by its location, the art needs to be rooted in place, and landscape does that.”
For Texans, a sense of place is strong and palpable and real. Our ties to the land are like the roots of a prairie grass — deep and strong, drawing sustenance from the earth. Texas artists are no different, and when it comes time to find something to paint, the landscape is a natural choice.
“I think it’s fair to say that Texas art and Texas history are so much about the land,” says Reaves, a former art gallery owner in Houston. “The evolution of the state itself is based on the large expanses and huge boundaries and how people come to grips with it and dealt with it. The wide-open spaces are part of the Texas mystique.”
The diversity of landscapes in Texas has given artists plenty of subject matter — mountains and coast, deserts and rivers, forests and plains.
“The thing that sets Texas landscape painting apart is the Texas landscape itself,” Fulkerson says.
Edward "Buck" Schiwetz • The Maples, Sabinal Canyon • Mixed Media on Board (1980) • Courtesy of the Ransom Center • Austin
Early Texas landscape paintings allow us to glimpse a world as Native Americans and early settlers did — a place of abundance and beauty.
“This sort of untouched landscape that was still available to artists at the beginning of the 20th century is really important,” says Fulkerson, who likes to discern what she can about natural history from paintings. “At a time when we only had black and white photography, the artist can illustrate in full color. It gives us a window into the past in a way that is both beautiful and documentary at the same time.”
Landscape art lets us experience a place where geography, artistic skill, visual aesthetics and ecological order come together to transport us to a higher realm, an environment that’s far greater than the size of the canvas.
DeForrest Hale Judd • Caddo Lake • Oil on Masonite (1951) • Courtesy of the John L. Nau III Collection of Texas Art
Texas was a young republic when renowned bird artist John James Audubon paid a visit in 1837. Audubon, working on his massive Birds of America portfolio, was drawn by the state’s abundant bird life, and he painted and recorded shorebirds and other birds in Galveston and Houston. He used his Texas notes and specimens to complete his landmark publication.
In the 1840s, formally trained European artists moved to Texas and began producing art. German farmer-artist Hermann Lungkwitz settled in the Fredericksburg area and started painting the Hill Country scenes around him. His romantic portrayals of the rolling landscape captured gnarled live oaks, rocky outcrops and flowing rivers painted with luminosity and careful composition. He documented places that became future state parks in his paintings Enchanted Rock and Above the Falls on the Pedernales River.
“I think he loved doing landscapes, but I also think that it was this matter of documenting this new experience, this new place where he found himself living,” Fulkerson says.
Theodore Gentilz arrived from France and settled in Castroville in 1844 as resident surveyor and artist. He depicted frontier life in rich pictorial accounts and found great inspiration in the missions and the evolving multicultural communities of San Antonio. His paintings of the western reaches of Texas provide invaluable documentation of the lives of Native Americans, Mexicans and Europeans.
San Antonio became a leading place of Texas art in the late 19th century and early 20th century, attracting painters such as Spaniard José Arpa, British-born Dawson Dawson-Watson and American Robert Onderdonk (son Julian was born in San Antonio in 1882).
Arpa’s brilliant color work can be seen in his depictions of San Antonio nature and city life. Dawson-Watson, steeped in the impressionist school of painting, lifted cactus and cactus flowers into the realm of high art.
Julian Onderdonk gained renown as a premier landscape artist and an epic painter of bluebonnets. His work continues to influence the way artists paint the Texas landscape and the way people think about Texas and art. President George W. Bush took three Onderdonk paintings with him to the Oval Office.
“He wasn’t the only one painting bluebonnets and wildflower subjects, but the guy who came to sort of personify that was Julian Onderdonk,” Reaves says. “He was among the best ever to portray that, and he popularized that genre.”
Landscape artist Frank Reaugh came to Texas with his family in 1876 in a covered wagon. He became a devotee of the open range and cattle drives and had a long and productive career painting impressionistic pastels of longhorns and landscapes portraying the vastness of the Texas plains. He was also a noted mentor and teacher who introduced a new generation of painters to the Texas landscape.
“Reaugh was really the only artist to observe and paint firsthand the end of the Texas cattle drives,” Reaves says. “He was an extraordinary landscape painter.”
One of Reaugh’s students who went on to win acclaim was Reveau Bassett, who specialized in waterfowl and hunting scenes and, according to Reaves, effectively became the state’s first true wildlife artist.
While impressionism dominated much of early Texas art, new directions were being forged in the Panhandle. Georgia O’Keeffe taught art in Amarillo from 1912-14 and in Canyon from 1916-1918. Her interest in abstract views of landscapes and her devotion to the American Southwest developed there. O’Keeffe’s abstractions of Texas nature were among the earliest manifestations of American modern art.
“She was out on the High Plains up there and Palo Duro Canyon,” Reaves says. “She fell in love with that part of the country. She was doing something completely different with her art.”
The Davis competitions of the 1920s brought unprecedented attention to Texas landscape art.
“The first great art event in the state was in 1927 when the San Antonio Art League put on the San Antonio wildflower competition — the Davis competition,” Reaves says. “They brought in hundreds of painters to paint the best Texas wildflower subjects. The winners were awarded the highest cash purchase prizes in American art up until that point. That sort of sealed Texas wildflower painting as a genre that would last forever.”
In the 1930s, a group of artists arose in Dallas with their own distinct approach to landscape painting. Their subject matter remained rooted in the trees, hills, mountains and desert of the Texas natural world, but with an awareness of 20th century modernism.
This Lone Star Regionalism practiced by artists such as Jerry Bywaters, Everett Spruce and William Lester turned the Texas landscape into, among other things, cubist-inspired paintings of West Texas mountains and canyons.
Alexander Hogue took his Regionalist artwork into the realm of environmental advocacy with his Erosion series, which contrasted the inherent beauty of the landscape with unsettling messages about the impact caused by farming and ranching in the Dust Bowl era.
Even as new styles came about, some painters continued to paint Texas in a more traditional manner. Porfirio Salinas became a favorite of Texas political leaders such as Lyndon Johnson with his portrayals of Hill Country flowers, rivers and hills. One of Salinas’ mentors was Robert Wood, who reportedly hired Salinas to paint bluebonnets in his landscapes.
In the 1950s and beyond, Texas landscape art became more abstract and multifaceted, just as the landscape itself became more fragmented and developed.
Audley Dean Nicols • Franklin Mountains • Oil on Canvas (1920) • Courtesy of the Alice and Charlie Adams Collection
Texas landscape art has a rich and varied history, but it may be experiencing its finest moment now. There are talented landscape artists across Texas portraying the state in interesting and beautiful ways. Artists such as Mary Baxter of Marfa, David Caton of Utopia, Noe Perez of Falfurrias and Lee Jamison of Huntsville draw on their own personal corners of the state to produce masterful works of art.
“You have a little bit of everything in today's landscape art,” says Texas art expert Linda Reaves, who collaborates with her husband, William, on books, gallery shows and museum exhibitions. “You have impressionism. You have regionalism. You have all forms
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has embraced this vibrant world of Texas landscape artists to help visually celebrate the 100th anniversary of state parks.
“Why do we turn to contemporary artists to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Texas parks?” Fulkerson asks. “They offer us in perspective when we talk about Texas. The fact is that landscape art remains a relevant expression of how we view our world today.”
Today’s artists can draw their inspiration from the Texas landscape as well as from the deep well of Texas artistic history. Whatever their style or medium, they will continue to capture the look of the place and the feel of the place.
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