Julian Onderdonk’s Work — Even Bluebonnets — is Celebrated in an MFAH Exhibition

Afternoon, Southwest Texas by Julian Onderdonk, 1912.
Afternoon, Southwest Texas by Julian Onderdonk, 1912.
Courtesy of the Bobbie and John Nau Collection

Breaking news alert: Hell may have frozen over. If so, it’s probably because bluebonnet paintings have been spotted in the galleries of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston — lots of them, big ones, hills and fields and canyons of them — in the exhibition “Julian Onderdonk and the Texan Landscape,” curated by Kaylin Weber, MFAH assistant curator of American painting and sculpture. Listen closely and if you hear screams, they are likely coming from members of Houston’s haute-art elite (maybe even some MFAH staff) as they fling themselves from the museum’s roof.

Bluebonnet paintings, along with those of longhorn cattle and magnolias, have long been the touchstones of Texas art kitsch. Any artist caught with a bluebonnet on his easel would likely be laughed out of the real-artists guild. And hanging them in our major museums? Well, let’s just say that hasn’t happened much for some time now.

To be honest, exhibiting bluebonnets at MFAH isn’t unprecedented. Well, no, on second thought, it pretty much is, at least on this scale within the memory of most anyone alive today. Onderdonk, often considered one of the two or three most important Texas artists of old, and one of whose paintings (not of bluebonnets) was the second work to enter the MFAH collection, had his last one-person exhibition here in 1932. Even I can’t remember that far back.

So why now, you might wonder, especially since everyone knows that bluebonnets bloom in the spring? This year they are blooming in the fall at MFAH in celebration of the publication of Julian Onderdonk: A Catalogue Raisonné (Yale, 2016), by Harry A. Halff and Elizabeth Halff, with an essay by Emily Ballew Neff, former MFAH curator of American painting and sculpture. The project, a massive, multiyear effort to document all of Onderdonk’s work, has been housed at MFAH.

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Onderdonk’s paintings have always been popular with a general (rather than an arty) audience. One of the works in this show, a large, luscious one titled Bluebonnets in Texas, is from the LBJ Presidential Library; and George W. Bush had Onderdonks in the Oval Office during his tenure. Don’t hold this against Onderdonk if you have political reservations about either; he was long gone by their time. But it shows his continuing impact even 90 years after his death. This exhibition of 25 or so paintings and drawings makes it clear why admiration for his work persists.

Things get off to a good start in the first gallery, where, in addition to some of his little-known New York paintings, Onderdonk’s Sunlight and Shadow (1910) hangs beside Sunlight and Shadow, Shinnecock Hills (c. 1895), by his teacher, William Merritt Chase, also from the MFAH permanent collection. Onderdonk’s painting is that second-in-the-MFAH-collection I mentioned above. I’m told that the one preceding it was a bad copy of a Dutch painting, so in fact his was the first of significance; it’s one of his most beautiful, even though there’s not a bluebonnet in sight.

I’ve been longing for this Onderdonk/Chase pairing for years. Chase, of course, was one of the most important American Impressionist painters of the late 19th century. While still a teenager, Onderdonk went east to study with him, as had his own father, Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, 20 years earlier. The younger Onderdonk learned the lessons of the master so well that the master painted the pupil’s portrait, as a gift, in recognition.

When he returned to Texas in 1909, after a few years of painting what he called “pot boilers” for the money to support his family and often signed with one nom de brush or another, Onderdonk brought with him the lessons he’d learned in the East, transposing them to a Texas context. The two paintings side by side, with almost identical titles, compositions that harmonize and landscape subjects addressed with similar attitudes, crystallize how something as far removed as Chase’s Impressionism found its way to Texas and found a footing here through Onderdonk.

And even though Onderdonk’s painting is smaller and of a Texas scene, by an artist little known outside Texas, either then or now, his work has the heft to hang proudly beside the master’s much larger one. It says that art, real art good enough to be shown in our museums, isn’t just bought and brought from elsewhere. It also happens here. This isn’t simply a matter of pride, but a powerful visual message showing both local visitors to MFAH and those from elsewhere, that aspirations to artistic significance have a legitimate heritage here in Texas.

For a long time now, “regional” has been a modifier of death for art. If it’s regional it can’t be good, so the patter goes — unless, of course, the region is the Roman campagna, the French countryside or the Catskills in New York. But all art is regional in one way or another, so it’s refreshing to see a show of explicitly Texas art in our major museum.

Onderdonk loved his region — the Texas Hill Country around his native San Antonio — and he painted it hundreds of times, in all seasons and aspects, after his return from New York. Some of the most compelling works in this show — like Afternoon, Southwest Texas, which focuses on a lone tree in a parched landscape, the land bleached white by the sun — have none of the prettiness often associated with bluebonnet paintings, but show a stark, almost brutal landscape that makes me think of the museum’s Courbet upstairs, The Gust of Wind. With them, Onderdonk defined a visual character for the landscape of his region (he was not so interested in painting the people or the cities) that has come to be seen by many as the look of Texas.

But the Hill Country is only one part of Texas. Other areas of the state have found other Texas looks. In fact, each major city and its hinterland have a distinctive visual tradition: in San Antonio, Onderdonk’s impressionism; in Dallas, the Texas twist on a distinctly American modernism, inspired by Thomas Hart Benton and others; in Fort Worth, a surrealism brought straight from Paris by members of the Fort Worth Circle in the 1940s; and in Houston, throughout the early 20th century, a dedication to international modernism fostered by Emma Richardson Cherry and those who followed her. “Julian Onderdonk and the Texan Landscape” presents us with one visual interpretation of Texas that we are privileged to have, but it’s only one of several. Perhaps over time we can hope to see the others as well.

As I thought about Onderdonk, having just written about “Picasso The Line” at Menil, I realized that we have a pleasing opportunity right now to ponder the perplexing question: What accounts for the difference between extraordinary accomplishment and greatness? At first the two shows hardly seem related at all. But I find it interesting that the two artists were almost exact contemporaries. Though Onderdonk died young, at 40 in 1922, and Picasso lived long, they were born less than a year apart, in places that were hardly art centers — Onderdonk in San Antonio and Picasso in Málaga, Spain. They were both the sons of artists who were their first teachers. They both went to the metropolis at almost the same time — Onderdonk to New York in 1900, and Picasso to Paris in 1901. Each, in his own way, was a dedicated, accomplished artist. And yet by the time Onderdonk died in 1922, after a difficult career but with enduring local note, Picasso had already invented cubism (not by himself, but substantially), and would still be famous everywhere even if he too had died that year. What makes the difference? Genius, of course, but probing beyond that simple answer makes viewing both shows richer.

Associated with the Onderdonk show is another that really deserves a review of its own, “A Texas Legacy: Selections from the William J. Hill Collection,” curated by Bradley Brooks, curator of the museum’s Bayou Bend Collection. Hill has long been a collector of 19th-century Texas art and decorative arts. This selection of items, several of them gifts from Hill to Bayou Bend over the years and others still in his personal collection, includes art — notably one watercolor by Julian Onderdonk’s father, Robert — but its glory is furniture, silver, stoneware and other objects made in Texas in the age before machine manufacturing supplanted the artisan. Hill’s passion for the things he collects has not stopped with the objects, but is made even more significant by the “William J. Hill Texas Artisans and Artists Archive” project he is funding at Bayou Bend, dedicated to documenting every Texas artisan and artist of the 19th century.

(Note: Tibbits is a member of the board of CASETA: Center for the Advancement and Study of Early Texas Art.)

“Julian Onderdonk and the Texan Landscape”
“A Texas Legacy: Selections from the William J. Hill Collection”
Through January 2, 2017. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300, mfah.org.


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