San Antonio’s Blue Period
Posted on October 4, 2019
Our city has a long and proud history of artists that help to shape San Antonio’s sense of place by capturing the natural beauty of central Texas. I came to understand this in part through my grandparents and their connection with one of these artists.
Marked by a generation of artists, throughout the 1910’s and 1920’s San Antonio would become a center of art in the state. Robert Onderdonk–who founded what would become the San Antonio Art League–had his painting The Fall of the Alamo displayed at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition and went on to become the earliest great teacher of painting in the state. His San Antonio born son Julian Onderdonk ended up traveling to New York to study at the Shinnecock School of Art with the American Impressionist William Merritt Chase. On his return home, his landscapes with their impressionist interpretations of hill country landscapes and fields of bluebonnets would garner great acclaim and lead to him becoming known as the “Father of Texas painting.”
My own exposure to these master artists came through a particular lineage of artists who were their contemporaries, instructors, mentors and friends. Jose Arpa y Perea, Robert Wood and Porfirio Salinas would trace an arc across the artists of San Antonio that would cover half a century.
Jose Arpa y Perea was born in 1858 in the Andalusian city of Carmona. Early in life at only age ten, he became an apprentice to a painter in Sevilla and then later studied under Eduardo Cano at the Academia Real des Bellas Artes. He would be greatly influenced by the plein-air techniques of the great Catalan painter Mariano Fortuny y Marsal known in Spanish as “costumbrismo”. It is this time spent in nature, studying and painting while experiencing one’s surroundings, that would be at the heart of Arpa’s work for years to come. He would go on to win a “Prix de Rome” while in Sevilla, giving him the opportunity to study in Rome where his education as a painter would continue and his influences would continue to expand. His work would be selected to represent Spain in the World’s Columbia Exposition in 1893 in Chicago’s “White City”. The next year, he would travel to North Africa to document a Spanish military exhibition in Morocco, a land that had long inspired Spanish painters. A few years later, Arpa would move to Mexico City working independently documenting the landscapes and customs of the country.
Arpa would eventually make his way back to San Antonio where he would become one of the city’s most successful artists of the 1920’s. Returning in 1923 after seven years away he was perhaps one of the cities the most versatile painters–his exposure and academic training affording him the ability to paint anything from portraits to landscapes. He could also teach at both art schools and in plein-air “camps” each spring where he would take students to the streets of San Antonio and the surrounding hillsides to capture glimpses of the city on canvas. It was in one such camp that the paths of Arpa and Robert Wood would cross.
Robert Wood was an English born artist, born in 1889 in Sandgate, a small village near the White Cliffs of Dover. Little is known of any formal art education he might have obtained. After serving two years in the Royal Army, he immigrated to the United States in 1911. First working as a farm hand in Illinois, he yearned to see more of the states and did so by painting small landscapes and trading them for travel and lodgings. He crisscrossed the country, marrying and starting a family while continuing to paint until he finally settled in San Antonio in 1924. Although likely he had no formal training, he quickly became a part of the local art scene and opened a studio downtown. He was considered quite a showman, painting scenes in the window of his studio and even capturing painted studies between scenes of the traveling vaudeville shows at the nearby theaters. This was the roaring twenties, and Wood’s work grew in size and maturity as he began to work with Arpa both in the studio and in the field. His work would take on a greater sophistication becoming more ambitious in scale and with a greater level of detail, becoming known for its depiction of the red oaks in the local landscape.
During this time, the local and Texas art scene would be impacted by several other events. In San Antonio the Witte Museum would open and Elizabeth Onderdonk, Julian’s sister, would become the curator of art. Of broader influence, oilman Edgar B. Davis–a wildcatter who it is told struck oil in a patch of bluebonnets–created the Texas Wildflower Competitive Exhibitions, which would place the bluebonnet work of the Texas Landscapes on a national level as an important competition and establish the “Texas Bluebonnet” prize that influenced the states art collectors and visitors to the Hill Country. Both Arpa and Wood’s works would be juried into the competition–Arpa winning a number of prizes, including the Texas Prize for the best in state in 1927 and for his Texas wildflowers in 1928.
Wood would also go on to be contracted by Joske’s–the largest department store in the city–as well as other dealers across the country and his work would become immensely popular. Wood and Arpa would travel on sojourns to Mexico to paint, and it was on one such trip that my grandparents–who had come to know and collect some of Wood’s paintings–commissioned a larger painting for them to hang in their living room. He came back with a painting of Saddleback Mountain outside of Monterrey, Mexico, and it was signed G. Day- so the story goes as short for “Good Day”. This was a pseudonym that he used to avoid conflicts with dealers he was contracted to when painting for friends, but these are considered equal to his named works.
Another one of Wood’s pieces came to be at my grandparents’ request. After seeing one of his paintings of a local scene–a patio with blooming trees and a cat sitting on the wall–they asked if he would create one like it for them. When they received the painting, they noted there was no cat and Wood responded, “well, the cat ran off”, hence not recreating the piece, but delivering a new painting altogether.
Wood and Arpa would paint their own “Texas Bluebonnets” connecting them to yet another local painter, Porfirio Salinas.
Originally from Bastrop, Salinas grew up in San Antonio and his artistic leaning was noticed at an early age. Essentially self-taught, he observed works in progress by Arpa and Wood and at age fifteen began his training working as an assistant in Wood’s studio. Initially he worked stretching canvases and framing artwork, followed by sketching in larger compositions from plein-air studies by Wood and accompanying them on trips to the hills surrounding the city as they painted. It was said according to a San Antonio newspaper article, “…that one day in the 1920’s 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”, although Salinas himself would later say that this was more a great lore and that Wood was a great bluebonnet painter in his own right.
Salinas would open his own studio in the 1930’s and was eventually taken under the wing of Dewey Bradford, a dealer whose family owned an art supply store and gallery in Austin. Despite a sometimes tepid relationship, Bradford became Salinas’ greatest champion. In 1945 during WW II, Salinas would be drafted into the army and stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio for two years where he would paint a mural for the Officer’s Club while also continuing to paint landscapes on his own.
Post war, Bradford would introduce Salinas’ work to some of Texas’ great political figures–House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson to name a few. LBJ and Lady Bird would become avid collectors and eventually take several of Salinas’ paintings to decorate the White House during his presidency, naming him his “favorite artist”.
Recently, a piece of his work will return full circle to his artistic roots. Salinas would watch and learn from the greats of Texas landscape painting at the Witte Museum during the Wildflower Exhibitions of the 1920’s. Today–almost ninety years later–one of Salinas’ great murals A Spring Scene of Texas Hill Country is being installed as a part of the new renovation of the Witte and the new Mays Family Center.
These artists mark a portion of San Antonio’s long history in the arts, making up the center of the heyday of Texas’ “blue period” as well as one that is dear to my own heart.