oil on canvas, 74 x 67, signed lower right: Michael Owen, Provenance: Collection of the Artists; Kenneth Foreman Collection, NC, acquired from above; Private collection, current.
Michael Gordon Owen, Jr. was an animal and figure sculptor, painter, craftsperson and illustrator. He was born and raised in Dallas, graduated from Highland Park High School and was a student at the Dallas Art Institute from 1932 to 1935.
In Rick Stewartâ€™s distinguished book: Lone Star Regionalism he describes Owenâ€™s early development as an artist. He describes him as one of the artists more attuned to the local regionalist developments. This observation is exemplified in this exceptional regional work. Stewart explains Owen was: â€œa precocious and energetic artist from Oak Cliffâ€¦ He studied painting with Jerry Bywaters while still in high school and in 1934 served as a painter for the Civilian Conservation Crops at their camp in Uvalde.” Owen worked on the Texas Centennial Exhibition as assistant to many of the sculptors; these works that can still be seen at Fair Park in Dallas today. Stewart explains that Owen sculpted animals and exhibited many powerful works of art, many of which are lost. He studies in New York and at the Commonwealth College in Mena, Arkansas. He became a designer for Southern Potteries in Dallas, and during World War II worked as an illustrator in the Navy Yard in Washington DC.
Owen was a prolific artist. His work is found in numerous collections including his sculpture of Peruna (1937), SMUâ€™s mustang mascot that still stands in the universityâ€™s football stadium. Dale Heard of Dallas also had Owenâ€™s work in her collection. He exhibited at the Allied Arts Exhibition and won a prize. He is mentioned in te 1944-45 â€œcontemporary artist” in the catalogue, The Texas Panorama Exhibition for the show that circulated on the national tour by the American Federation of Art. His work was exhibited and included in numerous exhibitions, their catalogues and books including: A Handbook of American Painting and Sculpture in the Collection of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, 1951; Twelfth Annual Exhibition of Texas Painting and Sculpture, San Antonio, Houston and Dallas 1950-1951; Art of The Americas, Pre-Columbian & Contemporary, DMA 1937 and The Art of Texas 250 Years, edited by Ron Tyler Â© 2019. He also exhibited in the his one man retrospective, Michael Gordon Owen, Jr. at the Smith Gallery in Davidson, NC in 1999; Texas Centennial Exhibition; Dallas Allied Arts Exhibition; Lone Star Printmakers; Kansas City Art Institute; Society of Washington Artists; Dallas Times-Herald Fair; and the Texas General/Texas Painting and Sculpture Exhibition, Society of Washington Artists, and the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1945. It is in these exhibitions and catalogues that Owen is included along side some of the most important Texas regionalists, Jerry Bywaters, Alexandre Hogue, Charles T. Bowling, Everett Spruce, Perry Nichols, Russell Vernon Hunter and Tom Stell to name a few. His work can currently be found in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art, SMU and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
This painting passionately depicts the human relationships of family and friendship. The figures and clothing are depicted in rich color with rounded and bulbous shapes and hard-edged lines, paramount to American regional style. The guitar symbolizes the unifying aspect of music, which brings the strength and unity of the figures together, while the wild, windy and dark atmosphere whipping over the barren and cut hills in the background give the viewer a sense that theyâ€™d like to remain close and listen to the sounds emitted from the guitar in the painting.
We know the man seated at left with the guitar is Leadbelly, who is the historical figure and musician, Huddie â€œLeadbelly” Ledbetter (Am. 1888-1949), who later became known as the â€œking” of the twelve-string guitar. He had a tenuous relationship with the law, being incarcerated three times for breaking the law and murder. After serving time, Leadbelly went on to tour the nation, influencing many great folk artists. In researching through a portion of the Owenâ€™s archives, two portrait sketches for this painting were discovered. A sketch of the woman standing was found in a folio, however her identity remains unknown. A sketch of the same man standing at the right depicted in this same profile position was in the same folio. A photocopy of a self-portrait of Michael Owen painted in 1943 bears an identical likeness to this sketch, and we presume this man, standing strong at right is in fact the artists. Owen draws on the classical art device famously used by Diego Velazquez in his 1656 portrait, Las Meninas by including himself in this painting. We remain to wonder what his relationship is to the group. The infant in the foreground holds the viewers attention and brings us in with eye contact. We presume Owen includes himself signifying his great friendship and admiration for Leadbelly and his music. They knew each other as a result of Leadbelly playing music in Deep Ellum district of Dallas in the 1920â€™s. In 1943, Owen sculpted the famous black serpentine bust of Leadbelly, which remains in the DMAâ€™s permanent collection. The painting is full of symbolism and devices, the cave at middle left in the background, the careful placement of each figure, all balanced with Owenâ€™s use of the golden ratio, positioning the figures in a triangle with the guitar piercing the center, the women and children, the strong men flanking the scene. This theme of mother and child, and men as symbols of strength recurs in Owenâ€™s work.
- Texas Artists and Artisans 1718-1959, by Vic Roper Â© 2017
- A Handbook of American Painting and Sculpture in the collections of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, DMA 1951
- Texas Panorama: An Exhibition of Paintings by Twenty-Seven Artists, DMA 1943
- No-Jury Exhibition [Checklist], DMA 1938
- Catalogue of the Exhibition of Art of the Americas: Pre-Columbian and Contemporary, DMA, 1937
, Provenance: Collection of the Artists; Kenneth Foreman Collection, NC, acquired from above; Private collection, current.