Early Texas Art

Appraising and Assessing Pre-1940 Texas Artists

Jose Arpa

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Verbena by Jose Arpa

Jose Arpa y Perea

From Andalucía to Old San Antonio

by Jeffrey Morseburg

Jose Arpa y Perea is a challenge to write about because he lived his life on three continents, crossing the Atlantic Ocean countless times in the years before trans-Atlantic travel was comfortable. So, archival information on Arpa is found in Spanish Andalucía, the Mexican State of Veracruz, across Argentina and finally, in our own state of Texas. And Arpa’s work is found in all the locations in which he lived during his long and fruitful life. While the artist’s paintings are now highly sought after by the top tier of Texas collectors, he still remains a little-known figure, one that is thought of as a painter with only a regional interest to Spanish, Mexican or Texas collectors. During his lifetime, Arpa was a widely respected and well-loved figure that played an important role in the development of art in every place that he lived. It is my hope that by writing more extensively about Arpa’s life and career, we can make this gentle soul better known for his art and his manifold accomplishments.

Jose Arpa y Perea was born on February 19, 1858 in the small Spanish city of Carmona, which sits on a ridge overlooking the broad Andalusian plain, in the province of Seville. He was born into modest surroundings, for his father, Antonio Arpa was a cobbler who worked at his bench all day to make a few pesos to feed his wife Gracia and the children. Arpa displayed extraordinary artistic ability from a young age, and so, in order to give him some chance at a better life, at ten he was apprenticed to a painter and a decorator in Seville, the capital of Andalucía.

“May you live in interesting times” is curse with ancient origins, and the Spain that Arpa grew up in was going through some very interesting times. In 1868, the year he was sent to Sevilla, the reining monarch, the ineffectual Isabella II, was deposed and a period of chaos ensued, during which many institutions were reorganized, including the art academies. Arpa was an industrious boy and he applied himself doing house painting and decoration during the day so he could attend evening classes at the Academia Real des Bellas Artes (The Royal Academy of Fine Arts). He bgean his studies while he was still in his teens and became a full-time student in 1876. Arpa was trained in the classical techniques, beginning with a class in the basic principles of art (“Principios”), then the study of the head and figure (“Figura y Cabezas”) and then on to extensive instruction in life study (“Figura”).

Arpa’s first important instructor and mentor was Edouardo Cano (1823-1897), who was born in Madrid but grew up and was trained in Seville, then at the Royal Academy in Madrid and finally, Paris. Like most of the Spanish painters of his era, Cano was highly influenced by French painting, and in fact his most famous work, “Christopher Columbus in the Convent of La Rabida,” was painted in the French capital. Because he was a painter of grand, sweeping historical epics, Cano emphasized a very classical approach to his students, with precise draftsmanship and the constant practice of drawing from life. At the academy, he taught composition, where the students learned how to create complex historical tableaus with many figures, and it was his background in composition that allowed Arpa to become an exceptional muralist later in life.

Sloping Hills by Jose Arpa

The Fortuny Influenc

During Arpa’s early period in Sevilla, the brilliant young Catalan painter Mariano Fortuny y Marsal (1838-1974) came to live and paint in Sevilla for several months and, during that short time in Andalucía, he had a major impact on the younger artists and students. While Fortuny was was only thirty-two at the time, he was already internationally famous, both for his epic scene of Spain’s victory over the Moroccans in 1860, “The Battle of Tetuan,” (Museum of Modern Art, Barcelona) and even more for his small plein-air paintings of typical Spanish subjects known in Spain as costumbrismo.

Fortuny had lived and painted in North Africa during the Moroccan war, and the intense light of the desert was a revelation, one that changed the course of not only his art, but his nation’s. He began to paint out-of-doors, directly from nature as the Barbizon painters were doing in France, but he painted in the vivid light of the Spanish day rather than in the morning or late afternoon. His ability to capture the bright Spanish light in his painterly canvasses made his paintings popular with collectors as far away as New York. Younger Spanish painters and even foreign artists began to emulate him by adopting looser brushwork and painting during the middle of the day when more rational people were enjoying a siesta.

While young Jose Arpa probably did not meet Fortuny during the dynamic painter’s short sojourn in Seville, many of the other Sevillian painters did. It was through the young artists of the Spanish city, who adopted Fortuny’s enthusiasm for plein-air painting, that Arpa’s artistic development was forever altered. Through Fortuny’s influence he came to love the truth and beauty of plein-air painting. Throughout his long career, he emphasized the importance of painting out-of-doors, working directly from nature. And it was his skill at capturing the fugitive light while standing at his little portable easel that gave his work its great vitality. While horsemen speak about “saddle time” as the way to hone their horsemanship, it is the hours that a painter spends working from nature that gives them the ability to paint a landscape that feels fresh and true, and from early in his career Arpa spent long days under the Spanish sun in order to master his craft.

Cactus Flowers by Jose Arpa

Sojourn in Eternal Rome

In 1882, Arpa completed his studies at the Academia des Bellas Artes. He won the prestigious “Prix de Rome” award from the academy. Most English language biographies of Arpa incorrectly state that he won this award in Rome, but in actuality, the prize was a modest scholarship awarded by the provincial government, which gave him the opportunity to study in Rome. As we have seen, during the long reign of the Bourbon Kings and Queens, the French influence in Spain and on Spanish art was great, so it should come as no surprise that the Prix de Rome award in Seville was modeled on the scholarship that was awarded to its top student each year by the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris for a period of study in the “eternal city.” Since the Renaissance, artists had looked back to Greece and Rome as models of the ideal forms of art and architecture, a font of inspiration. The young painters who went to Rome on scholarships were sent there to draw from the classical sculpture in the museums, to work among the ruins, to soak up the power and grace of the classical era.

The provincial scholarship that Arpa won entitled the artist to live at the Spanish academy in Rome, which had only opened in 1873. Arpa apparently had his scholarship extended, but the circumstances of this extension need to be researched more extensively. From the late 18th century it had become a tradition for young painters to live and paint in Rome at the conclusion of their formal studies and that tradition included painting landscapes in the city and outside it on the Roman Campagna. The head of the Spanish academy in Rome when Arpa arrived was Francisco Pradilla Ortiz (1848-1921), another painter of historical scenes, but he was also known for his small costumbrismo studies, in which he depicted provincial Spaniards in their unique regional costumes.

At the same time that Arpa was in Rome and painting in the city, another brilliant young Spanish painter was there, an artist from Valenica named Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923), who arrived in 1885 with a scholarship from his provincial government. As two Spanish painters in Rome, Arpa and Sorolla would have would certainly have known each other well, but the relationship between them needs to be explored further. At that time Sorolla, who would become known all over the world for his light-filled canvasses, was still under the spell of Goya and working in a darker palette.

Another major artistic influence whom Arpa mentioned in later interviews was the Spanish painter Martin Rico y Ortega (1833-1908), a Madrid-born artist who lived in France for many years, where he was influenced by Francois Daubigny and the Barbizon School. Rico was had traveled extensively in Italy with Fortuny and became an enthusiastic adherent to painting under the mid-day sun. Most plein-air painters traveled extensively in order to find interesting subjects and Rico painted throughout Spain and Italy and worked extensively in Rome. After 1879, rented a palazzo and spent his summers in Venice. It was during Arpa’s years of study in Italy that he painted with Rico. We know Arpa copied Renaissance masterpieces in Florence and Venice and whether he spent time with Martin Rico in the romantic seaside city or Rome isn’t clear. He also painted in Italy with Jose Villegas Cordero (1844-1921), another Spanish painter who had been influenced by Mariano Fortuny and a proponent of Orientalism, the depiction of the people of the Middle East and North Africa.

In the French tradition, at the conclusion of his Roman studies, the Prix de Rome winner was obligated to provide the sponsoring academy with a major painting, a “diploma work,” but whether this obligation extended to Arpa and there is a painting in Seville as a consequence has not been discovered. Apra lived and painted in Rome until 1886. According to a family friend, who interviewed the painter late in his life, he intended to stay in Rome longer, but a serious illness caused him to return to Spain to convalesce.

Arpa spent nine years back in Spain. He was active with a number of art socities and his work was reproduced in Blanco y Negro (“Black and White”) as well as “La Illustracion Artistica.” He sent paintings to exhibitions in Madrid and Berlin and completed an ambitious project, the painting of a series of ceiling decorations in the Circulo Mercantil Sevilla (the Seville Mercantile Building) on the theme of Arts & Commerce. In 1893, his work was selected for the exhibtion of Spanish art at the World’s Columbian Exposition, the Chicago world’s fair. In 1894, he accompanied a Spanish military exhibition to Morocco as an illustrator, which gave him the opportunity to see North Africa, the land that had inspired Fortuny and a number of other Spanish painters.

Arpa in Mexico

Sometime in late 1895 or early 1896, Jose Arpa sailed from Spain to Vera Cruz, Mexico. Arpa’s move to Mexico was a striking one for the time. Most painters of the era who were seeking a change or looking for greener pastures would have moved to France or the United States. In the Arpa literature, the reason that has usually been advanced for the move was an offer to head the Academia de San Carlos in Mexico City. The way the story was told, he made a grand departure, accompanied by a Spanish warship no less. This story came from the San Antonio papers, where it was published early in the Spanish artist’s stay there, and has followed him ever since. At the time of his departure, Arpa was a talented Spanish painter who was just beginning to establish himself in Spanish and international exhibitions. So, he almost certainly would not have had the stature or the experience to be offered a position at a major academy, let alone be escorted by a warship, an act of diplomacy more suitable for a foreign dignitary. Conclusion of Pt. 1.  Copyright 2010-201l, Jeffrey Morseburg, not to be reproduced without the specific written consent of the author.


Dawson Dawson-Watson: From Giverny to San Antonio, An Impressionist’s Journey

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Dawson Dawson-Watson

Grand Prize, Texas Wildflower Competitive Exhibition, 1927

by Jeffrey Morseburg

The British artist Dawson Dawson-Watson (1864-1939) became famous for being the recipient of one of the grandest prizes in American Art, a $5,000 award for winning the first annual Texas Wildflower Competitive Exhibition in 1927. While Dawson-Watson is known primarily today for the works that he did in Texas during the 1920s and 1930s, he was a well-traveled painter and teacher who played an important role in the development of the colony of Impressionists in Giverny, the Arts & Crafts movement in Boston, the art colony in Woodstock, New York, the Washington University School of Fine Art in St. Louis and finally, the art scene in San Antonio. He was a versatile artist who not only worked in oils and watercolors, but painted murals, designed furniture and crafted picture frames.

Childhood in the Dawson-Watson Home

Dawson Dawson-Watson was born in St. John’s, Marylebone, St.Pancras, Middlesex on July 21,1864. He came from such an impossibly artistic background that it seemed almost inevitable that he would become an artist. His grandfather,Dawson Watson, was an amateur painter in Yorkshire and his father, John Dawson-Watson (1832-1892), was a talented British illustrator and fine artist. He illustrated Arabian Nights, Pilgrim’s Progress and Robison Crusoe, and contributed to the artistic magazine The Graphic as well as London Society and Good Words. The father was an academically trained artist who had studied in Manchester and at the Royal Academy. He painted in a romantic, Pre-Raphaelite-tinged style and his life’s work was a series of Shakespearean murals at the Castle Hotel in Conway, North Wales. Dawson Dawson-Watson’s uncle was the painter Thomas J. Watson (1847-1912), and his aunt Frances Watson (1841-1921) married her brother’s friend, the famous painter Myles Byrket Foster (1825-1899)

Dawson-Watson grew up in St. John’s Wood, a fashionable suburb north of London with airy villa-style housing, which was then in the County of Middlesex, but eventually became absorbed by the growing metropolis. Dawson Watson’s mother was his father’s cousin, Jane Dawson Edmondsen. They were married in 1858, and he was the second of their five children, growing up surrounded by artists, writers and designers. His father’s circle included William Morris, the father of the English Arts & Crafts movement, the late Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne Jones (1833-1898), and Ford Maddox Brown (1821-1898), the painter of moral allegories. Dawson-Watson was a child prodigy who drew and painted prolifically during his boyhood, aided eventually by his first tutor, the American expatriate painter Mark Fisher (1841-1923). His first painting was accepted by the Royal Academy at the age of sixteen. After the Watson family moved from England to Wales in the 1880s, Henry Boddington (1813-1886), a wealthy Manchester brewer, took an interest in Dawson-Watson and sponsored his studies in Paris, then the artistic capital of the world. In the years after the American Civil War, artists from all over Europe and the United States flocked to Paris to study at the official state-sponsored school, the Ecole des Beaux Arts, or one of the many private academies where famous artist’s critiqued their students or “eleves” work and helped them to gain entrée into the Salons and other important exhibitions.

An Art Education in Belle Epoque Paris

It was Dawson-Watson’s studies in Paris from 1886 to 1888 that made him the painter he would be and gave him the academic background that later made him an effective teacher. In the late 19th century, the teaching ateliers of Paris were usually headed by a prominent painter who was asked by a group of student’s to critique their work. During the autumn, winter and spring months, the aspiring artists labored in crowded, sooty ateliers, with dozens of students at their easels all gathered around a nude model on a posing platform. The younger, less experienced students learned through observation and by suggestions made by the older, more seasoned painters. Periodically, the master painter – who lent his name and prestige to the atelier – would come from his fashionable studio and spend time critiquing his student’s work. Because the students were young men in their late teens and early twenties, there was a considerable amount of hazing that went on. And while rivalries did develop in the ateliers, most artists forged life-long friendships among the penniless art students who shared drafty rooms in the student quarter.

In Paris, some art students matriculated under a single prominent artist for a number of years, while others moved from teacher to teacher, in attempt to find one that suited them or who could round out their knowledge. Dawson-Watson worked under the fashionable portrait painter Carolus-Duran (1837-1917), who had been John Singer Sargent’s (1856-1925) teacher and mentor; a history painter named Leon Glaize (1842-1932); the painter, printmaker and illustrator Luc-Oliver Merson (1946-1920); Raphael Colin (1850-1916), who was known for his romantic nudes; and the military painter Aime Morot (1850-1913), whose reputation rested on his epic battle scenes. Students were elevated from one course of study to another based on mastery, rather than an artificial schedule. Some artists would master the academic rendering of the nude figure and be prompted by their master to painting, more rapidly than others, for example. Other than the official state sponsored academy, in most of the private schools there was not a point at which the student graduated and officially ended his studies. Each artist simply ceased studying and began to try to establish himself as a professional artist when he and his mentor felt he was ready, usually when his work was accepted into the annual salon or his paintings began to find buyers.

A British Impressionist in the Art Colony of Giverny

During his studies in Paris Dawson-Watson came to know the American painter John Leslie Breck (1860-1899), who frequented the same Montparnasse café in which his teacher Raphael Collin and many of the artists gathered to eat and drink. In June of 1888, the Boston painter visited Dawson-Watson’s lodgings in Paris and suggested that the English painter spend the summer months painting in the little village of Giverny, which was west of the French capital, in the Valley of the Seine. Since Dawson-Watson hadn’t made any plans yet, he said that, “I should just as soon go there as any other place.” Breck’s suggestion led him to become one of the first colonists in Giverny, and instead of a summer, he and his wife would remain in Giverny almost five years. The artistic residents of the little art colony there are important to art history because they helped spread the Impressionist influence far and wide as they exhibited their works in their home countries and went on to teach themselves.

The actual founding of the art colony in Giverny probably dates to the spring of 1887, but there are different accounts as to how the first small group of American painters discovered the little farming village, one of which was related by Dawson-Watson many years later. In one story, given by Edward Breck, John Leslie Breck’s brother, the village was discovered by the American painters Willard Leroy Metcalf (1858-1925) and Louis Ritter (1852-1896), who were hiking in the Valley of the Seine, looking for a place to spend the summer. Even though the village was very small and didn’t have any accommodations save a café, Metcalf, who was from the Boston area, and Ritter, who was one of the “Duveneck Boys” from Cincinnati, contacted their fellow American artists, Theodore Robinson (1852-1896) and Theodore Wendel (1859-1932), and the Canadian Blair Bruce (1859-1906), and suggested that they come down, because they found the village and surrounding hills beautiful. The most interesting thing about Breck’s account was that he claimed that the Americans were not drawn there by the presence of the French Impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1896), the village’s only famous inhabitant.

Now, while Dawson-Watson did not settle in Giverny until the following year, he later told another version of the origins of the little colony that was related to him by John Leslie Breck. According to Dawson-Watson’s account: “In the spring of ’87 he, (John Leslie Breck), Willard Metcalf, Theodore Robinson, Blair-Bruce, Theo. Wendel, and a chap called Taylor (Henry Fitch Taylor, 1853-1925), whose Christian name I cannot recall, were talking over some places to go for the summer. Pont Aven, Etreatat, Ecoigu, all the many places to which students went. Were talked over and discarded. Then Breck had an idea. He said, ‘fellows, lets go over the Gare St. Lazare and look over the time distances, and the places to decide.’” According to Dawson-Watson, the little band of painters originally set out for Pont de l’Arche, which required a change of trains in Vernon, a larger village adjacent to Giverny. Then, when they saw the countryside just before the stop at Vernon, they decided they would retrace their route if they were not as attracted to Pont de l’Arche. According to Dawson-Watson: “What had intrigued Metcalf so much was the little village of white houses and a Norman church at the foot of a fairly high plateau, seen through the poplars bordering the Seine and across perfectly flat fields. They arrived in Vernon a few minutes later and learned the place they had seen was Giverny.”

During Dawson-Watson’s time in Giverny, he only returned to England once, when he spent a number of months in Wales, where his family was living and his father was working on his Shakespeare murals. Unfortunately, he ran short of funds and his friend Theodore Butler had to wire him money so that he could return to Giverny to participate in Butler’s wedding to Suzanne Hoschede, who was now Monet’s step-daughter thanks to the French painter’s recent marriage to Suzanne’s mother, Alice Hoschede. By 1893, after five years in Giverny, Dawson Dawson-Watson was a fully formed painter. He and his wife were ready to move on, and so when the American expatiate painter James Carroll Beckwith suggested that they relocate to the United States, they packed up and left, arriving in New York with only twenty-five dollars to their name.

After landing in New York, Dawson-Watson and his wife remained only long enough to sell enough paintings to travel north to Boston. Their stay in Boston was probably brief, but it allowed them to renew the friendships they had forged in Paris and Giverny, where so many of the residents had been Bostonians. Of all the places he was destined to live, it was only in Boston that Dawson-Watson would find the same type of artistic and literary milieu that he had experienced growing up in London.

In 1893 Dawson-Watson accepted a teaching position with the Hartford Art Society in Hartford, Connecticut. Because of his experience in the ateliers of Paris, he had the skills and knowledge to pass on the same type of Beaux-Arts instruction that he had received, and thus was a good candidate for an art school position. Because the painters who had been in Hartford before him worked in darker tonalities, it was clearly not Dawson-Watson’s knowledge of French Impressionism that the Art Society was seeking. In Hartford they seemed to still look at Impressionism as quite avant-garde, if we are to judge from this quote:

       Mr. Dawson-Watson, whether one fully agrees with his manner of painting or not, is a most successful teacher, well instructed in the best schools of England and France, and having a thorough knowledge of technique, he believes in making his pupils work out their own manner and methods. He aims to develop each pupil’s individuality, instead of making copyists. At the same time, he is very particular as to accuracy in drawing, and is himself a forcible draughtsman. The improvement of the pupils under him has been very marked, and the work done compares favorably with that of other schools.

The three years he spent in Hartford gave Dawson-Watson a start in what would be a long and successful teaching career and enabled him and his wife to start a family. Both of their two children were born in Connecticut, Edward Dawson-Watson in 1893 and Hilda Dawson-Watson in 1895.

During his time away from a busy instructional schedule, Dawson-Watson painted out of doors as he had done in France. Few landscape works from his years in Hartford have been discovered but he apparently worked extensively on the Connecticut coast. While Dawson-Watson was in Hartford, he maintained relationships with fellow artists and artisans to the south and participated in the artistic life of Boston, especially during the summer months, when his schedule was free of teaching. In 1894 he exhibited his works at Chase’s Gallery in Boston with those of Frank Benson (1858-1939), Joseph De Camp (1858-1923) and his Giverny friends Lila Cabot Perry and Philip Leslie Hale. In 1895, he sent some his paintings west to an exhibition at the Cosmopolitan Club in Chicago, which were looked on favorably in the pages of The Critic.


On June 9 1901, the Dawson-Watson family once again set foot on American soil, but this time in the Canadian Province of Quebec, on the St. Lawrence River. Dawson-Watson had set out for Canada instead of moving back to the United States because he had heard there was an opening for an instructor at an art school there, but when he arrived there was no offer of employment.

Without teaching as a steady means of support, Dawson-Watson had to make a living by selling his works, and so set out to establish his artistic reputation in yet another new city. Working from the heights above the St. Lawrence River, he painted high-key summer landscapes of the river and headlands that were infused by sunlight. In the winter he painted colder, more dramatic scenes of the river choked with ice and the headlands cloaked in snow. During his three-year stay in Quebec he gained enough of a reputation as an artist to be featured in the Quebec Sketch Book (a series of short essays on the Province taken from different journals that was published in 1907), which enthused about his work:

      Dawson-Watson who is well-known in Quebec, where for several years he plied his art both in landscape and portraiture, has recently accepted an important appointment as one of the principal instructors in the great school of painting and handicrafts in St. Louis. Mr. Watson left Quebec with regret and regretted. His more recent Canadian pictures have found permanent resting places here, as well as many previously disposed of.

In Quebec that Dawson-Watson became friends with the well-known American painter Lovell Birge Harrison (1854-1929) who enjoyed painting there. Harrison invited the English painter to become part of an exciting new venture, an Arts & Crafts community that was being formed in the New York countryside.

Dawson-Watson and the Byrdcliffe Art Colony

The Catskill Mountain hamlet of Woodstock, New York will always be associated with the epic rock festival that was staged there in 1969, but its identity as an icon of the counter culture actually dates back more than a century. The famous Woodstock Art Colony began as Byrdcliffe, a utopian Arts & Crafts community that was founded in 1903 by Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead (1854-1929) and his wife, the American painter June Byrd McCall Whitehead (1861-1955). He was a student and acolyte of the art historian John Ruskin, a proponent of the philosophy of the designer William Morris and he and his wife moved to America with the goal of starting an Arts & Crafts colony. At he urging of the artist Bolton Brown (1864-1936) and the writer Hervey White (1866-1954), the Whiteheads began their colony, known as Byrdecliffe, in Woodstock, New York, a pretty little village that is nestled between the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains.

Because of his versatility, Dawson-Watson was invited to work and teach at Byrdcliffe. Not only was he trained in the French academic tradition; he also was an Impressionist landscape painter of some repute and an experienced carver, gilder and woodworker. Moreover he also had a background in textile design. Dawson-Watson was an artist as well as an artisan and he soon became not only an instructor for the Byrdcliffe Summer School but also a collaborator in the furniture making scheme that Whitehead had planned. While the furniture operation quickly failed, Dawson-Watson created some beautiful gothic-inspired pieces with Art Nouveau influenced decoration that are highly sought after by collectors. The utopian goals of Byrdcliffe never meshed with reality and so the community was a short but interesting chapter in Dawson-Watson’s long career. Looking for another opportunity, he accepted the offer of a position at the Washington University School of Fine Arts in St. Louis, a place where he would finally be able to root and raise his family.

Teaching at Washington University in St. Louis

In 1904 when Dawson Dawson-Watson accepted a position with the Washington University School of Fine Art, the city was in the midst of the world’s fair, the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, which was held to celebrate the centennial of Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase. Along with Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924) and Herman Dudley Murphy, Dawson-Watson was one of the Boston painters who was involved in the Arts & Crafts frame movement and their hand-carved and gilded frames were on display at the fair.

With the experience he had gained during his three years teaching in Hartford, Dawson-Watson joined the faculty of the School of Fine Arts, which was under the direction of Halsey C. Ives (1847-1911). Initially, he taught “Painting from the Head” and “Painting from Still-Life” and then “Portrait Painting” and “Sketching from Nature” in where he was able to put his Impressionist-influenced technique to use. By the time his fellow instructor, Edmund H. Wuerpel, took over the direction of the school, he had also began to put his background in decorative arts to work and was teaching wood carving.

During his years in St. Louis, Dawson-Watson also exhibited his work extensively, both in Missouri as well as throughout the Midwest. He through himself into the artistic life of the region and served as an officer of the St. Louis Artist’s Guild and exhibited and served as an officer of the Society of Western Artists, an organization of Midwestern painters, based in Indianapolis. His work was featured in a special solo exhibition in the galleries in Washington University in 1907 at again at the City Art Museum in 1912. Dawson-Watson’s Impressionist style was singled out for praise in the pages of the International Studio and the American Magazine of Art. At the same time, he maintained his relationships in Boston, serving as the first President of the Society of Arts & Crafts in 1905, organizing exhibitions and showing his own paintings and hand-crafted picture frames.

Dawson-Watson also had a theatrical bent and he participated in musical reviews and pageants and served as designer for theatrical productions. In 1914, he was heavily involved in organizing the Pageant and Masque of St. Louis, a massive four-day twilight production with a cast of 7,500 that drew crowds of more than 100,000, which celebrated the 150th anniversary of the founding of the city. While Dawson-Watson was still living in St. Louis and raising his family there, he began spending time in San Antonio, Texas. While he had first exhibited his work in Texas in 1896, he seems to have begun spending time in the warmer climate of the Alamo city during the First World War, probably in 1914, when he left his teaching position at Washington University. In 1916, he taught briefly at the Springfield School of Art, in Indiana, where he had a solo exhibition that year.

South to San Antonio

In the fall of 1917, Dawson-Watson began teaching at the newly opened Art Guild of San Antonio, which relied on rented rooms in downtown San Antonio. The guild began with evening classes and when the demand grew, its Art Guild School was opened with the English painter as its first instructor. He threw himself into the civic life of the Texas city, speaking at women’s clubs to promote the guild and lecturing on art. For a number of years, he split his time between St. Louis and San Antonio, because he still had commitments to meet and he served as director of the St. Louis Industrial Exposition in 1919 as then as the art director for the Missouri Centennial in 1921. At the same time, he was designing stage sets and exhibiting his paintings and prints in Joplin and smaller Missouri cities, as well as in the east. He had a solo exhibition in Joplin in October of 1922.

In San Antonio, where he spent the winter months, Dawson-Watson found himself attracted to the tremendous variety of cactus that he found in the hills and draws of central Texas. Rather than paint the blue lupin, the Texas Bluebonnets that the painter Julian Onderdonk had made so famous, he preferred the humble cactus. He would often prop his canvas up against a bush and sit cross-legged while he painted the cacti in the Tfieild, often with the morning dew still on their flowers. By 1920 Dawson-Watson was already exhibiting his cactus paintings in the Midwest and East. In the early 1920s, he also began to make trips to the Grand Canyon, in Arizona he painted small studies on canvas board on location and completed larger works in his studio from the sketches.

The Davis Wildflower Competitions

According to later accounts given by the artist himself, it was in1926 while he was exhibiting his work in Boston that Dawson-Watson first learned that the eccentric oilman Edgar B. Davis was going to sponsor a major art competition to encourage artists to paint the beauty of the Texas Hill Country. Apparently, his friend Rolla Taylor (1874-1970), the Texas artist, encouraged him to leave for San Antonio and enter the contest. However, according to an article in the San Antonio Light, he was already exhibiting his works at the Women’s Club of San Antonio under the auspices of the Art Guild and the Fine Art Round Table in May of 1926. So, it isn’t clear whether the artist was already painting in the Hill Country the spring before the first Davis competition, or whether he rushed down to do paint on location in preparation for the exhibition that would change his life. What is evident is that he had already dedicated himself to the portrayal of the cactus as a subject. In June of 1926, a headline in the Light over an image of Dawson-Watson with a field of cacti stated that “Texas Cactus Lures Artist.”

Organized by the Mrs. Drought and the San Antonio Artists League, the First Annual Texas Wildflower Competitive Exhibition was one of the richest art contests ever held, with a $5,000 prize for the best wildflower painting done by an painter who lived outside the state, and a $1,000 prize for the best work of wildflowers by a Texas artist. Davis was a generous philanthropist who had come to appreciate Texas wildflowers while he drilled dry hole after dry hole in his attempt to make his third fortune in the oil business, the first two coming in shoes and rubber plantations. When his oil wells finally came in and he grew rich, he became very involved in cultural affairs and sponsored the art contest, which drew painters from the East, Midwest and California. The paintings were juried into the competition and as a well-known painter; Dawson-Watson headed the jury of selection which made the first cut of entries so that the final exhibition would be a manageable size.

In 1931 Dawson-Watson had a solo exhibition at the Pabst Galleries in San Antonio. According to the preview in the San Antonio Light, the show would feature “Familiar views of San Antonio, such as the patio of the Governor’s Palace, and portions of the ‘rock-ribbed shores” of Massachusetts, which have received plastic interpretation by Dawson Dawson-Watson, San Antonio artist…” The exhibition included twenty-four paintings

Porfirio Salinas – From Bastop to San Antonio

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Porfirio Salinas


L.B.J.’s Favorite Painter

by Jeffrey Morseburg

From the years of the Great Depression through President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society of the 1960s, Texan Porfirio Salinas (1910-1973) remained one of the state’s most popular artists. Today, his works remain popular with Texas collectors and those who love landscapes of the beautiful “Hill Country” of central Texas. One of the first Mexican-American painters to become widely recognized for his art, Salinas was a favorite of President Lyndon Johnson and first lady Lady Bird Johnson, as well as of Sam Rayburn, the longest-serving Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Texas Governor John Connelly. In fact, President Johnson was so enamored with his Salinas paintings that the artist will forever be associated with our first Texas-born President. Works by Porfirio Salinas are in a number of museum collections, grace the halls of the Texas State Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion in Austin, and are included in virtually every major private collection of Early Texas Art.

Porfirio Salinas was born on November 6, 1910 near the small town of Bastrop, Texas, about thirty miles from Austin. His father, Porfirio G. Salinas (1881-1967), and his mother, Clara G. Chavez, struggled to make a hard-scrabble living as tenant farmers, but eventually were forced to give it up. The family moved to San Antonio, where Salinas’ father was able to get a job working as a laborer for the railroad, but the scenic area around Bastrop, with its pine trees and the wide expanse of the Rio Grande River, would forever remain a touchstone for the artist. For the rest of his life, Salinas and his brothers went back frequently to visit their grandmother in her little farmhouse. When in Bastrop, Porfirio painted on the banks of the Rio Grande or in the groves of pine trees. The Salinas family was close-knit and Porfirio was the middle child of five children, so he had an older brother and sister and a younger brother and sister. His mother was a native of Mexico, so throughout his childhood the family made the long drive to the border crossing at Laredo to visit Clara’s close-knit family.

As a child growing up in the bi-lingual section of San Antonio, Salinas drew and painted incessantly and by the time he was ten, he was already producing work that he sold to his schoolteachers. He was described as a “boy whose textbooks were seldom opened and whose sketchbook was never closed.” The young artist spent his spare time watching artists paint in and around San Antonio. As an aspiring painter, Salinas was fortunate to grow up in the historic city, which had the most active art scene in Texas, and it was his exposure to older, professional painters that encouraged him to leave school early in order to help his family and pursue a career as a professional artist, despite his father’s inability to see art as a possible career for his son.

About the time he was fifteen, Salinas, who was then employed in an art supply store, began to work as an assistant to the English-born painter Robert W. Wood (1889-1979), who had settled in San Antonio in 1924. Although Wood was already an established professional artist, he did not have a great deal of formal art training and was then studying with the academically trained Spanish painter Jose Arpa (1858-1952) in order to augment his knowledge and give his work a more polished look. Salinas was an eager young man, and while working in Wood’s downtown San Antonio studio he learned to stretch canvases, frame paintings and sketch in larger compositions from small plein-air studies for the older artist. He began to accompany Wood and Arpa to the hills outside San Antonio, where they painted small studies of fields of blue lupin – the state flower, the famous “Bluebonnets” of Texas – in the springtime and scenes of the gnarled Red Oaks as they changed color in the fall. He was soon assisting Wood in the tedious work of painting the tiny blue flowers that collectors wanted to see in the landscapes they purchased of central Texas. According to a 1972 newspaper story, “Legend has it that one day in the 1920s artist Robert Wood decided he could not bear to paint another bluebonnet in one of his landscapes. He hired young Porfirio Salinas to paint them in for him at five dollars a painting.” Whether this story is accurate or apocryphal isn’t clear, but the ambitious and independent young Salinas wasn’t destined to be anyone’s assistant for very long.

The formative event of Porfirio Salinas’ teenage years was the Texas Wildflower Competitive Exhibitions, the Roaring-Twenties dream of the eccentric oilman Edgar B. Davis (1873-1951). These competitive shows of paintings of wildflowers and Texas life were mounted in San Antonio from 1927 to 1929. Held at the newly opened Witte Museum each spring, the exhibition featured large cash prizes donated by Davis, which were an inducement for artists to travel from all over the United States to paint in the Hill Country of Texas. The “Davis Competions,” as they were known, helped to cement San Antonio’s reputation as an art center, a legacy that remains with the “river city” today. The shows generated a great deal of excitement in the area, helping to make celebrities of the some of the artists who had already settled there and encouraging others to make San Antonio their home. Over the three years that the wildflower competitions were held, more than 300 paintings were exhibited, and thousands of viewers saw the paintings at the Witte Museum and on tours throughout the state and in New York. Each year Davis would generously purchase the winning paintings and then donate them to the San Antonio Art League. Young Porfirio Salinas would have been able to not only watch his two mentors – Robert W. Wood and Jose Arpa – paint the works that they entered in the Davis Competitions, he would have been able to see Arpa take several of the major prizes, receiving the judge’s accolades for “Verbena,” “Cactus Flower” and “Picking Cotton,” works that are still on view at the San Antonio Art League Museum today. Unfortunately, eventually Davis put his money to work elsewhere, bringing to an end the wildflower events, but only after they inspired Salinas and other aspiring painters and had helped to make wildflower paintings the most sought-after subject for traditionalist Texas collectors.

In 1930, when he was only twenty, Salinas hung out a shingle and began to paint professionally, augmenting the sales of his easel paintings with what little business he could garner by painting signs for local concerns. It was a struggle for the young artist to make a living, as the effects of the Great Depression were settling in. His early works are very similar to those of Robert Wood’s, both in subject matter and treatment. Salinas did small paintings of Bluebonnets for the tourists who visited San Antonio to see the famous Alamo as well as paintings of the Texas missions. While some of his early works have a soft, tonalist quality, with subtle gradations of sunset colors, most were painted in a style that fits well within the currents of the late American Impressionist style, with solid drawing and a warm, chromatic palette. Like Robert Wood’s works of the 1930s, the paintings Salinas produced as a young man were usually well composed and detailed views of the spring wildflowers in full bloom in the Texas countryside. In contrast to Wood’s work, however, early Salinas compositions were usually pure landscapes without the pioneer farms or dilapidated fences that Wood often used to add visual interest to his wildflower scenes, and he also painted scenes of San Antonio itself as his mentor Jose Arpa had done.

In 1939 Salinas began working with Dewey Bradford (1896-1985), one of the great characters of Texas art. Bradford was a second-generation dealer whose family operated the Bradford Paint Company in Austin, where they sold art supplies, framed artwork, restored paintings and hung artist’s work. Salinas was struggling when he met Bradford, but the older man took the young artist under his wing and began to sell his work reliably, even though the prices that people would pay for a painting were still low due to the lingering effects of the Great Depression. Bradford was a born salesman with a gift for storytelling, and truth be told, a bit of embroidery. The relationship between Bradford and Salinas was often rocky, but it was to last the rest of the artist’s life and give him a modest sense of loyalty and security, things which are all too rare in the art world. While Bradford could be critical of his work, Salinas knew that he had a dealer who encouraged him, believed in him and was not shy about singing his praises to anyone who entered Bradford’s store on Guadalupe Street.

During the early years of World War II Salinas met a pretty Mexican woman from Guadalajara named Maria Bonillas, who was working as a secretary for the Mexican National Railways office in San Antonio. Walking downtown with a painting of a bullfighter under his arm prompted a conversation with the young woman, and things progressed rapidly. The couple were married on February 15, 1942 and settled into life in San Antonio, eventually purchasing a tidy stone home on Buena Vista street that had a detached studio in back. By the time the United States entered World War II, Salinas was starting to make a decent living selling his art and beginning to garner recognition across Texas. However, in 1943, like millions of other young men, he was drafted into the service of his country. Fortunately, as an older Army draftee with special talents, after his training he was assigned to Fort Sam Houston, right in San Antonio, allowing him to remain at home while still completing his obligation to Uncle Sam. Because of his artistic abilities, Salinas was asked to do paintings for the Army as well as a mural for the Officer’s Club, which has been recovered in recent years. In his spare time he kept working on landscapes and when the war ended in 1945, he was not faced with the same rocky transition from military to civilian life as many veterans. That same year, Salinas became a father as he and Maria celebrated the birth of his only child, Christina Maria Salinas.

Like most landscape artists of the era, Salinas was an avid plein-air painter, and he took his easel and paint box with him on trips throughout Texas and into Mexico. He and his wife traveled deep into her native country, where the artist painted the majestic volcanic peaks of Iztaccihuatl (known as the “Sleeping Woman” because of its unique shape) and Popocatepetl (called the “smoking mountain” because the volcano is still active), south of Mexico City. Salinas also painted studies of rustic villages and their residents. While his most popular paintings were always the scenes of the Texas Bluebonnets and other wildflowers that bloom all over the Hill Country in the spring, he also painted scenes of the twisted Texas oak trees of central Texas, the more arid landscapes of the Texas panhandle and West Texas, and the historic Texas missions; he even rapidly executed scenes of bullfights and cockfights for Mexican-American collectors.

By the late 1940s, the American economy was finally growing again and wealthier Texans began to collect Salinas paintings, purchasing them from galleries in San Antonio and Dallas and at Dewey Bradford’s County Store Gallery in Austin. Salinas also sold work to the Atlanta dealer Dr. Carlton Palmer, who represented Robert W. Wood for many years. In 1948 he sold two large Salinas paintings to the Citizen National Bank in Abilene, Texas. Because Austin was the state capitol, Bradford counted many of the state’s elite among his patrons, and due to his interest in history and literature, he played a large role in the cultural history of central Texas. Bradford introduced a number of the major Texas political figures to Salinas’ work, including Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-1973), who was then in the House of Representatives and on his way to winning a controversial election that installed him in the United States Senate. Johnson became an enthusiastic collector, as did his political mentor, the legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn (1882-1961). Johnson decorated his office with Salinas paintings and brought a number of them home to his vast LBJ Ranch, near Johnson City, Texas. In spite of his important patrons, however, Salinas went through a fallow and difficult period in the late 1950s. He had a volatile temperament, which made relationships difficult, and it took great patience for his wife to help him manage his career.

As Salinas entered middle age his work began to sell steadily, but except for tourists who purchased his paintings in San Antonio, he was known primarily only to Texas art collectors. All that changed in 1961 with the election of John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) to the Presidency of the United States and running mate Lyndon Johnson to the Vice Presidency. Johnson was an expansive, larger-than-life character and his status as a long, tall Texan in a cowboy hat was a large part of his imposing political image. During his storied career in the House of Representatives and the United States Senate, Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson (1912-2007) spent their time in Washington in a modest house on the edge of Rock Creek Park, but this home would not do for a Vice President. So, in 1961, the Johnsons purchased a French chateau-styled home in the Spring Valley section of the Capitol. Obtained from the famed socialite and ambassador Perle Mesta (1889-1975), the house came with a fine collection of French furniture and tapestries, and the designer Genevieve Hendricks was hired to meld the French look with objects from the Johnsons’ overseas travels and paintings of the flora and fauna of their native Texas. Featured prominently in the foyer were the paintings of Porfirio Salinas. Because of the Johnsons’ patronage, his work was mentioned in Time Magazine and other national publications. Lady Bird Johnson loved her landscapes of the Texas Hill Country and told reporters that, “I want to see them when ever I open the door, to remind me where I come from.”

fter President Kennedy’s death thrust Lyndon Johnson into the Presidency, he brought his Salinas paintings into the historic halls of the White House, adding further to the Texas painter’s reputation. At the time of the President’s assassination, Salinas had completed a scene of a horse drinking titled “Rocky Creek” that was to be presented to Kennedy during his visit to Dallas. Instead, in an effort to memorialize the fallen President, the artist painted a symbolic work of a lone horse depicted against foreboding clouds. During his tenure in the White House, President Johnson also presented a Salinas landscape as a state gift to the President of Mexico, Gustavo Diaz Ordaz (1911-1979). During the 1960s, Salinas paintings sold briskly and, thanks to Presidential patronage, for escalating prices. In an interview with a writer from the New York Times, President Johnson enthused about the work of “his favorite artist” and said that, “his work reminds me of the country around the ranch.” Salinas was invited to the LBJ Ranch frequently during President Johnson’s administration and his paintings were hung throughout the ranch, in the President’s offices and even in the private quarters of the White House. The connection to President Johnson was a great boon to sales of Salinas paintings, and in 1964, when demand was at its height, Texas Governor John Connelly (1917-1993) was told that all Salinas’work was sold and that he would have to wait for a painting.

In 1960, a half century after his birth, Salinas was honored by his home town of Bastrop, a celebration that touched the modest artist. In 1962 Salinas was honored with a solo exhibition at the Witte Museum in San Antonio that featured more than twenty of his works. By the early 1960s, sales of reproductions of the artist’s landscapes by the New York Graphic Society and other publishers also grew rapidly, enlarging his audience throughout the United States. In 1967, Dewey Bradford helped to organize the production of a book of Texas stories titled “Bluebonnets and Cactus” (Austin: Pemberton Press: 1967), which was profusely illustrated with paintings by Salinas. His works were still popular when Salinas died after a brief illness in April of 1973, just a few months after former President Johnson’s passing. He was memorialized in the City of Austin by Porfirio Salinas Day, which honored him for having “done much to bring the culture of Mexico and Texas together with his paintings.” Bastrop, Texas, the city of the artist’s birth, has been holding a Salinas Art Exhibition annually since 1981.

The entire artistic oeuvre of Porfirio Salinas is estimated to be between two and three thousand works in all, with the vast majority being landscapes of Central Texas. He painted hundreds of scenes of the wildflowers, including the various varieties of Blue Lupin, the state flower, as well as other flowering flora. These show the influence of his artistic mentors Robert W. Wood and Jose Arpa Y Perea. Salinas also painted a number of scenes of Prickly Pear Cactus that show the influence of the English painter Dawson Dawson-Watson (1864-1939), who painted many such works during his tenure in Texas. He painted the more arid Texas landscape infrequently and these works are very rare today and sought after by collectors from the Texas Panhandle and the El Paso area. Salinas also painted many river landscapes along the Guadalupe, Rio Frio, the San Antonio River and the Rio Grande. On trips to his wife’s homeland of Mexico, he painted a number of scenes of the volcanic peaks as well as scenes of peasant villages and villagers. Figurative paintings are rare among Salinas’ works and these scenes of bull fights, fandangos and cock fights are probably the least sought after of his paintings. There are also a small number of modest marines, painted on trips to the Texas and California coast. Salinas paintings are highly prized by collectors of early Texas art, with the paintings of wildflowers in greatest demand.

Works by Porfirio Salinas can be found in a number of public collections, including the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum; the Texas State Capitol; the Texas Governor’s Mansion; the Lyndon Baines Johnson Ranch; the Sam Rayburn Library and Museum in Bonham, Texas; Amarillo High School; the Witte Musuem in San Antonio; the historic Joan and Price Daniel House in San Antonio; the Stark Museum in Orange, Texas; the R.W. Norton Art Gallery in Shreveport, Louisiana; the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo, Colorado; Texas A & M University and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Salinas has been featured in a number of reference works and anthologies devoted to American Western Art and has been the subject of a modest biography by Ruth Goddard (Portfirio Salinas, Rock House Press: 1975) that was based on interviews with the artist.
Copyright 2010, Jeffrey Morseburg, not to be reproduced without specific written permission.  Copyright, 2010-2011, Jeffrey Morseburg, not to be reproduced without specific written permission of the author.