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Julian Onderdonk

(1882 - 1932)

Biography

For information, contact: Gavin Spanierman, Managing Director, New York, 212-628-9760, gspanierman@gpgalleryny.com.

Robert Julian Onderdonk, generally referred to as Julian Onderdonk, was born in San Antonio, Texas in 1882 to Robert Jenkins Onderdonk and Emily Gould Onderdonk. Robert Jenkins was a professional artist and when Onderdonk was young boy he began his first art lessons under his father’s instruction. When his father was away seeking work in other towns, Onderdonk would continue his art education by sending his pictures to Robert who would critique them via written correspondence. In 1898 Onderdonk enrolled at the West Texas Military Academy where he was the art editor for Bugle Notes and also taught art classes in his spare time.

In 1901 nineteen-year-old Onderdonk moved to New York where he enrolled at the Art Students League. His first instructor was Kenyon Cox, whose teaching emphasized anatomically correct drawing from plaster casts. Onderdonk’s letters home reveal he was a diligent student under Cox although he struggled somewhat with figure drawing.2 In April 1901 Onderdonk saw an exhibition of works by William Merritt Chase at the National Academy of Design. Onderdonk greatly admired Chase’s spontaneous works––“You feel the freshness, and the richness of the coloring the minute you enter the galleries”––and immediately enrolled in Chase’s Shinnecock Summer School of Art.3

During the summer of 1901 Onderdonk took classes run by Chase in Shinnecock, Southampton, Long Island. Onderdonk’s father, Robert, had also once studied with Chase. At the time the Shinnecock School was the largest and oldest American summer art colony. Onderdonk thrived in this new rural setting and the principles that Chase advocated––primarily working plein air––suited Onderdonk’s burgeoning landscape style. After Shinnecock, Onderdonk took winters classes at the New York School of Art with Frank Vincent DuMond.

These classes with Chase and DuMond effectively ended Onderdonk’s formal art training. In June 1902 he married Gertrude Shipman and in 1903 their daughter, Adrienne, was born. Apart from a short night course taught by Robert Henri, Onderdonk painted to support himself and his young family from this point on. His subjects from these years in New York range from city scenes of parks and streets to the semi-rural landscapes of Long Island and Staten Island where he lived.

In 1906 Onderdonk was offered a salaried position to assist in organizing the 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 permanently return to live in San Antonio. His son, Robert Reid, was born the same year.

For the next twelve years Onderdonk spent his summers in New York assembling shows for the Dallas State Fair and the rest of the year living and painting in Texas. While in New York, Onderdonk spent his time visiting galleries and museums, evaluating works for inclusion in the State Fair exhibition. This also allowed him to remain up-to-date with the contemporary art scene, so that when he returned to Texas to paint he was invigorated by the spectrum of theories and styles of art he had been exposed to.

After 1910 Onderdonk’s reputation began to grow steadily as he exhibited in galleries throughout the state and in other parts of the country. One key factor of this success was his bluebonnet paintings. In 1911, two years after returning to San Antonio, Onderdonk painted Spring Morning (DRT Library), a landscape depicting two distinctly Texan fauna: cacti and bluebonnets. Onderdonk had naturally painted cacti before; however, this was his first significant work to feature the azure-toned bluebonnet flower. Onderdonk commented on this new subject, “I like the bluebonnet because a field of this Texas flower seems just to have burst from the ground and it trembles subtly, making it very beautiful.”4 After 1911 bluebonnets occurred frequently in Onderdonk’s works as they delighted audiences with their Texas sentiment––the bluebonnet is the state flower of Texas––and also allowed Onderdonk to demonstrate his skill with paint and color.

During the last years of his life Onderdonk was increasingly occupied by his work for the Texas State Fair Association. He sometimes mentioned in letters to friends that his work for the Fair took too much time away from his own painting; however, as a tastemaker for Texas audiences Onderdonk took his Fair role very seriously. For example, Onderdonk played a role in advocating more exhibition space be allocated to featuring Texas painters. Also, his selections for the Fair often determined the collecting course of the newly formed Texas museum’s American holdings.

In October 1922 Onderdonk became suddenly ill following a trip to Dallas from San Antonio and was admitted to the hospital. He died following an operation for an intestinal obstruction. That winter his paintings Dawn in the Hills (San Antonio Museum of Art) and Autumn Tapestry (whereabouts unknown) were exhibited posthumously at the National Academy of Design in New York. This was an unusually special tribute by the Academy whose regulations normally only allowed the work by living artists to be exhibited.

Onderdonk’s bluebonnet paintings brought him acclaim, financial success and a host of imitators. Since Onderdonk’s death it has become a great Texas tradition among impressionistic painters to depict the Lone Star state flower.5 In 2008 the Dallas Museum of Art presented “Bluebonnets and Beyond: Julian Onderdonk, American Impressionist,” an exhibition that celebrated the landscape work of Onderdonk as a great landscape artist and native son. The museum also has several rooms of its permanent collection dedicated exclusively to Onderdonk’s work.