Julian Onderdonk (1882–1922)

Texas Landscape Artist

By Amy Spencer

Onderdonk’s legacy is his hauntingly beautiful paintings of the Texas landscape, in particular his indelible images of bluebonnet flowers.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

Since his early death at age forty, Julian Onderdonk has become a legend of Texas impressionism. Today Onderdonk is widely regarded at the father of “bluebonnet painters”; a landscape tradition that epitomizes an authentically Texan experience. His work is represented in many public and private collections, and in 2001 received special recognition when three paintings were loaned to the White House at the request of President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. Other collections to hold Onderdonk works include the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Dallas Museum of Art, and Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. In 2008, the artist’s auction record was set when the oil painting Path through a Field of Bluebonnets (date unknown) sold at Christie’s for $326,500 against a pre-auction estimate of $80,000 to $120,000.1

Robert Julian Onderdonk, generally referred to as Julian Onderdonk, was born in San Antonio, Texas in 1882 to Robert Jenkins Onderdonk and Emily Gould Onderdonk. Robert Jenkins was a professional artist and when Onderdonk was young boy he began his first art lessons under his father’s instruction. When his father was away seeking work in other towns, Onderdonk would continue his art education by sending his pictures to Robert who would critique them via written correspondence. In 1898 Onderdonk enrolled at the West Texas Military Academy where he was the art editor for Bugle Notes and also taught art classes in his spare time.

In 1901 nineteen-year-old Onderdonk moved to New York where he enrolled at the Art Students League. His first instructor was Kenyon Cox, whose teaching emphasized anatomically correct drawing from plaster casts. Onderdonk’s letters home reveal he was a diligent student under Cox although he struggled somewhat with figure drawing.2 In April 1901 Onderdonk saw an exhibition of works by William Merritt Chase at the National Academy of Design. Onderdonk greatly admired Chase’s spontaneous works––“You feel the freshness, and the richness of the coloring the minute you enter the galleries”––and immediately enrolled in Chase’s Shinnecock Summer School of Art.3

During the summer of 1901 Onderdonk took classes run by Chase in Shinnecock, Southampton, Long Island. Onderdonk’s father, Robert, had also once studied with Chase. At the time the Shinnecock School was the largest and oldest American summer art colony. Onderdonk thrived in this new rural setting and the principles that Chase advocated––primarily working plein air––suited Onderdonk’s burgeoning landscape style. After Shinnecock, Onderdonk took winters classes at the New York School of Art with Frank Vincent DuMond.

These classes with Chase and DuMond effectively ended Onderdonk’s formal art training. In June 1902 he married Gertrude Shipman and in 1903 their daughter, Adrienne, was born. Apart from a short night course taught by Robert Henri, Onderdonk painted to support himself and his young family from this point on. His subjects from these years in New York range from city scenes of parks and streets to the semi-rural landscapes of Long Island and Staten Island where he lived.

In 1906 Onderdonk was offered a salaried position to assist in organizing the art exhibitions for the Dallas State Fair, a function that his father had performed for many years. This job brought him back to Texas occasionally, and in 1909 he decided to permanently return to live in San Antonio. His son, Robert Reid, was born the same year.

For the next twelve years Onderdonk spent his summers in New York assembling shows for the Dallas State Fair and the rest of the year living and painting in Texas. While in New York, Onderdonk spent his time visiting galleries and museums, evaluating works for inclusion in the State Fair exhibition. This also allowed him to remain up-to-date with the contemporary art scene, so that when he returned to Texas to paint he was invigorated by the spectrum of theories and styles of art he had been exposed to.

After 1910 Onderdonk’s reputation began to grow steadily as he exhibited in galleries throughout the state and in other parts of the country. One key factor of this success was his bluebonnet paintings. In 1911, two years after returning to San Antonio, Onderdonk painted Spring Morning (DRT Library), a landscape depicting two distinctly Texan fauna: cacti and bluebonnets. Onderdonk had naturally painted cacti before; however, this was his first significant work to feature the azure-toned bluebonnet flower. Onderdonk commented on this new subject, “I like the bluebonnet because a field of this Texas flower seems just to have burst from the ground and it trembles subtly, making it very beautiful.”4 After 1911 bluebonnets occurred frequently in Onderdonk’s works as they delighted audiences with their Texas sentiment––the bluebonnet is the state flower of Texas––and also allowed Onderdonk to demonstrate his skill with paint and color.

During the last years of his life Onderdonk was increasingly occupied by his work for the Texas State Fair Association. He sometimes mentioned in letters to friends that his work for the Fair took too much time away from his own painting; however, as a tastemaker for Texas audiences Onderdonk took his Fair role very seriously. For example, Onderdonk played a role in advocating more exhibition space be allocated to featuring Texas painters. Also, his selections for the Fair often determined the collecting course of the newly formed Texas museum’s American holdings.

In October 1922 Onderdonk became suddenly ill following a trip to Dallas from San Antonio and was admitted to the hospital. He died following an operation for an intestinal obstruction. That winter his paintings Dawn in the Hills (San Antonio Museum of Art) and Autumn Tapestry (whereabouts unknown) were exhibited posthumously at the National Academy of Design in New York. This was an unusually special tribute by the Academy whose regulations normally only allowed the work by living artists to be exhibited.

Onderdonk’s bluebonnet paintings brought him acclaim, financial success and a host of imitators. Since Onderdonk’s death it has become a great Texas tradition among impressionistic painters to depict the Lone Star state flower.5 In 2008 the Dallas Museum of Art presented “Bluebonnets and Beyond: Julian Onderdonk, American Impressionist,” an exhibition that celebrated the landscape work of Onderdonk as a great landscape artist and native son. The museum also has several rooms of its permanent collection dedicated exclusively to Onderdonk’s work.

II. Chronology

1882 Robert Julian Onderdonk is born on July 30 in San Antonio, Texas to Robert Jenkins Onderdonk (a painter) and Emily Gould Onderdonk
1884 Sister Eleanor Rogers Onderdonk is born
1886 Brother Latrobe Onderdonk is born
1897 Has pen and ink sketches exhibited at the State Fair of Texas
1898 Enrolls at West Texas Military Academy where he is the art editor for Bugle Notes and teaches art classes in his spare time
1899 Graduates from West Texas Military Academy
1901 Moves to New York City and enrolls in the Art Students League, his first instructor is Kenyon Cox
Spends the summer in Southampton, Long Island, studying at William Merritt Chase’s Shinnecock School of Art
Takes a winter course under Frank Vincent DuMond at the New York Art School
1902 Marries Gertrude Shipman
Begins selling his paintings (sometimes signing his work “Roberto Vasquez”)
Takes a night course taught by Robert Henri
1903 Has work, An October Morning (1903; whereabouts unknown) exhibited at the Society of American Artists
Daughter, Adrienne, is born
1904 Springtime (1901) is purchased by the newly formed Dallas Art Association (now the Dallas Museum of Art)
Opens the shortly lived summer school, Onderdonk School of Art, at Arrochar Park, Staten Island
1906 Takes a seasonal job assembling art exhibitions to be sent to the Dallas State Fair (a job his father had previously had)
1909 Leaves New York and moves back to San Antonio permanently, although he continues to spend summers working in New York
Son, Robert Reid, is born
1910 Has works, November Woods (whereabouts unknown) and Moonlight in the Hills (Stark Museum of Art), exhibited at the National Academy of Design
Also exhibits at the first Annual Texas Artists Exhibition in Fort Worth
1911 Paints his first bluebonnet painting, Spring Morning (Daughters of the Republic of Texas)
1913 Has first two works accepted by the National Academy of Design
1917 Elected to the Allied Artists of America
Father, Robert, dies
1918 Becomes involved in a war service project, via the Salmagundi Club, painting landscapes to serve as “range finding charts” for artillery practice
1922 Elected an honorary lifetime member of the San Antonio Art League
1922 Becomes ill in San Antonio and dies following an emergency operation for an intestinal obstruction
Has works Dawn in the Hills (San Antonio Museum of Art) and Autumn Tapestry (whereabouts unknown) exhibited posthumously at the National Academy of Design
1924 The newly formed Museum of Fine Arts in Houston purchases Early Spring - Bluebonnets and Mesquite, the second work to enter its collection
1928 The Witte Memorial Museum holds a retrospective memorial exhibition of work by both Robert and Julian Onderdonk
1929 Onderdonk’s art library, consisting of over three hundred and fifty volumes, is donated to the San Antonio Art League
2001 Three Onderdonk paintings are loaned to the White House at President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush’s request; Near San Antonio (c. 1918; San Antonio Museum of Art), Chili Queens at the Alamo (1910–1920; Witte Museum) and Cactus Flower (unknown date; Witte Museum)
2008 Onderdonk’s studio is moved to the Witte Museum’s grounds in San Antonio where it is on permanent display

III. Collections

Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth
Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas
Dallas Museum of Art
Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) Library, San Antonio
El Paso Museum of Art
Forbes Magazine Collection, NY
Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, Seattle
Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, Austin
Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Austin
McLean Museum and Art Gallery, Greenock, Scotland
Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, San Antonio
Meadows Museum, Dallas
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
Monticello College Foundation, Godfrey, IL
Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, GA
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Museum of Texas Tech University, Lubbock
Ogden Museum of Southern Art at the University of New Orleans
Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Canyon, TX
San Antonio Art League Museum
San Antonio Museum of Art
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Stark Museum of Art, Orange, TX
Toledo Museum of Art
Witte Museum, San Antonio

IV. Exhibitions

1909 “Thumb Nail Sketches,” Rice Gallery, New York
1913 National Academy of Design, New York
San Antonio Art League
1914 Fred Hummert Gallery, San Antonio
1915 Fred Hummert Gallery, San Antonio
1916 Dallas Art Association
Palette and Brush Society, Gunter Hotel, San Antonio
1975 “The Onderdonks: A Family of Texas Painters,” Witte Memorial Museum, San Antonio
2003 “The Story of the South: Art and Culture, 1890-2003,” Ogden Museum of Southern Art at the University of New Orleans
2006 Ogden Museum of Southern Art at the University of New Orleans
2008 “Bluebonnets and Beyond: Julian Onderdonk, American Impressionist,” Dallas Museum of Art

V. Memberships

Allied Artists of America
Salmagundi Club of New York
San Antonio Art League

VI. Notes

Christie’s, California, Western and American Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture, Los Angeles, October 29, 2008, Sale 2072, Lot 63, http://www.christies.com/LotFinder/lot_details.aspx?from=salesummary&intObjectID=5127529&sid=62a92354-12e0-47de-a040-cd170a438be8
William Rudolph, Julian Onderdonk: American Impressionist (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven, 2008), p. 25.
Julian Onderdonk in a letter to his family quoted in Cecilia Steinfelt, The Onderdonks: A Family of Texas Painters (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1976), p. 95.
Julian Onderdonk in a letter to his family quoted in William Rudolph, Julian Onderdonk: American Impressionist (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven, 2008), p. 36.
For example, Robert Wood re-energized bluebonnet painting in the 1920s and 1930s, while his student Porfirio Salinas did the same in the late 1940s and 1950s.

VII. Suggested Resources

Rudolph, William. Julian Onderdonk: American Impressionist. Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven, 2008.
Steinfeldt, Cecilia. The Onderdonks: A Family of Texas Painters. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1976.

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