Robert Julian Onderdonk
(1882, San Antonio, Texas - 1922, San Antonio, Texas)
When Robert Julian Onderdonk died on October 27, 1922, at the age of forty, Texas lost one of its most promising artists. At that time Julian Onderdonk already had achieved a degree of fame, and he was becoming renowned for his masterly interpretations of the Texas landscape. Had he lived longer he undoubtedly would have made a greater impact in the field of American landscape painting.
Julian was born into an artistically inclined family. His father Robert, a professional artist when he came to Texas from Maryland in 1879, married Emily Wesley Rogers Gould in 1881 in San Antonio, and the couple made Texas their permanent home. The Onderdonks and the Goulds were distinguished families whose heritage included clergyman, statesmen, and educators, dating back to the seventeenth century. Julian, the first child, was born to Emily and Robert on July 30, 1882. His sister Eleanor was born in 1884, and a brother, Latrobe, was born in 1886. The children were reared in a cultured atmosphere amid a devoted and close-knit family, which included Mr. & Mrs. Nathan Gould, Emily's parents.
Julian was a precocious, strong-willed child, full of energy. These traits, which he never lost, fostered his determination to become an artist. Although many accounts maintain that his father attempted to discourage his artistic career, family records indicate otherwise.
Julian's father was his first art teacher, but by the time Julian was eighteen years old he was anxious to study in the eastern United States. A friend and neighbor, G. Bedell Moore, lent him money to go to New York. In 1901 Julian enrolled in the Art Students League (his father's alma mater), where his first instructor was Kenyon Cox.
During the summer of 1901 Julian attended William Merritt Chase's classes in Shinnecock, Southampton, Long Island. This proved to be an auspicious decision, since the principles that Chase advocated suited Julian's energetic temperament. He wrote to his parents: "I am very glad you want me to go to the summer school for I was crazy to go for I feel I could do better there than in a blamed old cast room ... I long to get out in the open air with my palette in one hand and brush in the other and be able to smear paint over the whole landscape."
Although he studied the work of many painters and also was a student of Frank Vincent DuMond (1865-1971), another Chase student, succinctly explained the teacher's approach to painting: "Chase was an exponent of the 'pleinair' school. He went to nature, stood before nature, and painted it as his eyes beheld it. And if he didn't kneel before nature, that as a matter of religion, was his own concern. More interested in 'impressions' of the subject than in the deeper and more labored probing, the work of his students consisted of pictures painted swiftly at one sitting." Julian want far beyond painting pictures "swiftly at one sitting," but he never lost the profound respect for nature that Chase had instilled in him.
Exhausting his funds after the summer at Shinnecock and the following winter term at the Art Students League, Julian started painting to support himself. After he married Gertrude Shipman in June 1902, his formal art education came to a virtual halt. He did take a night course, however, conducted by Robert Henri.
Julian's youth, exuberance, and physical stamina helped him work even harder when he and Gertrude became the parents of a daughter, Adrienne, on September 13, 1903. In 1906, however, Julian was offered a salaried position to assist in organizing 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 return to San Antonio permanently. Julian was happy to be reunited with his family. His son, Robert Reid, was born on December 9, 1909.
Upon his return Julian immediately began painting the Texas countryside. He and his father went on sketching jaunts together, and Julian, after so many years in New York, was back in his natural element. He diligently applied the principles he had learned from Chase and painted directly from nature. Revealing his love for the Texas landscape, he wrote:
San Antonio offers an inexhaustible field for the artist. Nowhere else are the atmospheric effects more varied and more beautiful. One never tires of watching them. Nowhere else is there such a wealth of color. In the spring, when the wild flowers are in bloom, it is riotous: every tint, every hue, every shade is present in the most lavish profusion, and even in the dead of summer, when one would imagine that any canvas could only convey the impression of intense heat, the possibilities of the landscape are still beyond comprehension. One has only to see it properly to find that everything glows with a wonderful golden tint which is the delight and the despair of all who have ever tried to paint it.
Julian's life became a routine of summers in New York assembling shows for the Dallas State Fair and the rest of the year painting in Texas. His work began to sell locally and as his reputation grew he also showed in galleries throughout the state and in other parts of the country.
Julian's sister Eleanor once stated:
It is evident that Julian was after something which no else had ever gotten -- an interpretation of the Southwest landscape, its essence in form and color so elusive and so subtle that the average person misses the closeness of values in the unity of color, live grey tones that vibrate. And that is where Julian stands preeminent as a painter of Texas landscape: call it atmosphere, if you like; aspect of nature, if you like; but above all recognize forms, in which myriad halftones play. 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. In many of his canvases, Julian uses dramatic contrast -- blasts of strong volume, with deep rolling orchestration, far removed from any 'prettiness' which is ascribed by the undiscriminating to my brother's work.
That "prettiness" was ascribed primarily to Julian's scores of bluebonnet landscapes. They were his most popular and saleable subjects, but he painted them because they appealed to him, not only because they were marketable. He interpreted the essence of oceans of azure-colored flowers in the morning mists, the glaring noonday sun, or in the tender hues of a spring twilight, as no one before him or since. As a consequence he became known as the "Bluebonnet Painter," an appellation he abhorred because of his amateurish imitators, who, for the most part, debased a theme that in Julian's competent hands was poetry in paint. "Bluebonnet Painter" seem too narrow a classification to express justly Julian's versatility as an artist.
Julian's responsibilities for the Dallas State Fair increased as he started to include the work of western painters as well as eastern artists. During the months he devoted to his own painting, he worked constantly, assiduously producing canvases of greater merit and maturity. Julian never spared himself mentally or physically in any task he undertook. In 1918 he had a short respite from his Dallas Fair obligations because the fair was canceled due to World War I.
Julian came almost to resent the time his Dallas Fair duties occupied. Perhaps he had a presentiment that his days were numbered, and he worked more feverishly than ever. He said: "I want to do big things. I have been working and am still working to do something really worth while. I feel the time will soon come, but I have never been able to put into my painting that which I wish to."
His last paintings, Dawn in the Hills and Autumn Tapestry, among his finest, were on the way to New York for the annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design for 1922 at the time of his death. Although regulations limited the exhibition to the work of living artists, Julian was accorded the unique honor of having his work accepted because of the unusual circumstances of his death as well as for the excellence of his paintings.
Julian's death was as sudden and unexpected as many of his actions in life. He fell ill in San Antonio and failed to recover from an operation for an intestinal obstruction. His untimely death was doubtless hastened by a cavalier disregard for his own welfare.
Since his early demise, Julian Onderdonk has become a legend. His work, represented in many public and private collections, is still avidly sought and has escalated enormously in value. Julian's legacy lives on in his emotional, mysterious, and hauntingly beautiful art.