Julian Onderdonk: beyond his fields of bluebonnets

Blue Bonnet Field, Early Morning, San Antonio Texas, 1914, sold for $515,000 at Heritage Auctions in November 2013. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions

NEW YORK – If asked to name a Texas artist, many might immediately think of Julian Onderdonk, a favorite with collectors of regional art both in and beyond the Lone Star State. Famous for his majestic paintings of fields filled with bluebonnets, Onderdonk is no one-trick pony. He deserves a place in art history as a talented impressionist who has painted much more than plein-air landscapes.

He forever changed the once-prevailing impression that Texas art was strictly Western in theme and dominated by depictions of hardworking cowboys, proud Native Americans and endless herds of cattle. His lyrical paintings, embracing both realism and tonalism, ushered in a new era.

Born in San Antonio in 1882, Onderdonk was a natural when it came to sketching and painting. His father, also a painter, encouraged his son’s talent and enthusiasm. The younger Onderdonk found inspiration in the vast Texas countryside and its breathtaking scenery.

In his teenage years, Onderdonk took artistic training before entering a military academy. Like his father before him, he went on to study under the renowned William Merritt Chase, and pursued an art career in earnest while living in New York City.

A Sunlit Road, San Antonio, Texas achieved $115,000 at Vogt Galleries Texas in November 2017. Photo courtesy of Vogt Galleries Texas and LiveAuctioneers

After marrying and returning to his native San Antonio in 1909, Onderdonk set about creating some of his finest depictions of the Southwestern landscape, from rivers bathed in a golden afternoon light to Spanish oaks, cactus, morning mists, the effects of the four seasons in the hill country, and, of course, his beloved bluebonnets. His art earned him the moniker of “Father of Texas painting.”

“His love of the Texas landscape and plein-air interpretation of it inspired artists who followed him,” says a commentary on the website of Harry Halff Fine Art in San Antonio, which produced a catalogue raisonne on the artist in 2016. That project led to a major touring exhibition titled “Julian Onderdonk and The Texas Landscape.”

Owing to his untimely death at the age of 40, Onderdonk’s career was cut tragincally short, but what he left behind was exceptional and timeless. Julian’s sister Eleanor, an artist herself, wrote of her brother, “It is impossible to look at any of Julian’s paintings and not see the man who looked at nature with wide-open eyes, analyzed, studied and then created.”

Texas Landscape with Bluebonnets earned $360,000 at Heritage Auctions in November 2015. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions

The market remains strong for his work, and his paintings are in many fine private collections and museums, especially Texas institutions, including the Dallas Museum of Art, which has several rooms devoted to Onderdonk’s work.

One of the standouts in the Dallas museum’s collection is Onderdonk’s Road to the Hills, which was restored in 2015 and went back on public view after nearly 60 years. The artist’s career was at a peak when he created this painting in 1918. It shows a bright and striking midday sun hitting an empty Hill Country road. The painting, according to DMA Chief Conservator Mark Leonard, is “a tour-de-force departure from the theme of the bluebonnet, and, consequently, reveals the wider range of the artist.”

Heritage Auctions, based in Dallas, Texas, holds the auction record for the artist’s paintings, which routinely bring six-figure prices. In November 2013, it sold “Blue Bonnet Field, Early Morning, San Antonio Texas,” 1914, for $515,000. That and two other Onderdonk paintings in the same sale totaled $1.1 million.

Spanish Oaks, Medina Valley Southwest, 1915, went for $130,000 at David Dike Fine Art in January 2015. Photo courtesy of David Dike Fine Art and LiveAuctioneers

“It is no surprise such a painting would set a new world record. Julian Onderdonk is a great American artist, and there was significant interest in these paintings from outside the state, but at the end of the day Texas collectors were simply not willing to let them leave the state,” said Atlee Phillips, Director of Texas Art at Heritage Auctions. “We sometimes forget that, as big as Texas is, her artists are even bigger.”

Onderdonk painted many bluebonnet paintings but each time creating a different scene and mood — stormy and gray or warm and bathed in sunlight. “Texas loved their bluebonnets when Onderdonk was alive, and they still love them today,” said Wes Cowan, principal auctioneer and executive chairman, Cowan’s Auctions, Inc., in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Texas Landscape with Bluebonnets earned $360,000 at Heritage Auctions in November 2015. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

In 2017, the San Antonio Museum of Art presented the exhibition “Julian Onderdonk and the Texan Landscape,” with contents that ranged from atmospheric impressions of the Hill Country and Texas bluebonnets to views of New York’s Long Island. “Julian Onderdonk’s work still influences the way visitors revere — and artists paint — the Texas landscape,” said William Keyse Rudolph, PhD, the museum’s Marie and Hugh Halff Curator of American Art and Mellon Chief Curator in a press release on the exhibition.

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