Very Early Texas Painting by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk
John James Residence in San Antonio
217. ONDERDONK, Robert Jenkins. “Mrs. James back yard – San Antonio Tex – 1880.” Watercolor and graphite sketch with opaque highlights in red and white, mounted on old board. Signed in ink below image at left “RJO.” Image size: 13.4 x 21.2 cm (5-1/4 x 8-3/8 inches); overall 17.8 x 25.4 cm (7 x 10 inches). In original wooden frame and under glass. Later board backing, with signed statement in ink in the hand of a James family descendant: “The Back Yard of John James (The Surveyor) on Commerce Street, San Antonio Texas. Aunt Charity faintly shown in Doorway. The S.A. River Behind the Artist. The Maverick Home was on opposite side of River and The James & Maverick boys threw mud balls at each other. This home was the first two-story residence built in San Antonio.—John Alexander James.” John Alexander James was the grandson of surveyor John James. Margins slightly frayed in a few places (not affecting image), overall mild darkening, one small closed tear in left blank margin, overall very good.
This beautifully executed watercolor is among the early paintings executed by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk after his arrival in Texas in 1879. “When Robert Onderdonk first came to San Antonio, he made many small sketches in and around the city” (Cecilia Steinfeldt, Art for History’s Sake: The Texas Collection of the Witte Museum, Texas State Historical Association for the Witte Museum of the San Antonio Museum Association, 1991, p. 183). Onderdonk was among the first artists trained on the East Coast to reside in Texas, and his teacher was American Impressionist William Merritt Chase, generally considered the most important and influential teacher of American artists of the era. The present painting exhibits the qualities expected of an artist trained at the Art Students’ League at the time, probably sketched on the spot, exactingly yet confidently drafted, suffused with light and painterly detail, such as rapid, dexterous tempera strokes in white and red indicating laundry hung to dry in the sun and a little lamb or other domestic animal resting by the back door. In the shadowed door of the back stoop is a barely visible female figure. The precision of draftsmanship underlying the painterly qualities of the work make it valuable documentation for the history of Texas and San Antonio architecture.
The residence portrayed is that of John James (1819-1877), pioneer surveyor and developer during the Republic of Texas and early statehood. James was probably the most important surveyor of the time in Texas. Among his notable achievements was to reestablish the original bounds of the Spanish land grant that the city of San Antonio occupied. Over the years, the John James family hosted many military figures in the house shown here, among them Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, John Bell Hood, and William Jenkins Worth, who died there of cholera in 1849. John James’ son James Vinton remarks of the house: “Our home was on West Commerce Street where North Presa Street is at present. The house was the first two-story building that had a chimney in San Antonio. The sills were hewed cedar logs and the supports of the windows were cedar. The west wall was of hard rock and the rest of the house was adobe, except the north upper story, which was weather boarded with the six inch cedar boards. The adobe part was plastered over. The floors and window facings were of lumber hauled from the coast” (Vinton James, Frontier and Pioneer Recollections of Early Days in San Antonio and West Texas, San Antonio, Published by the Author, Artes Graficas Press, 1938, p. 39, with photograph of the front of James House facing text). For more on John James, see entry under John James in this catalogue, and Handbook of Texas Online (John James). As for the reference on the old backing to Maverick, this relates to that illustrious Texas family of Samuel and Mary Maverick (see Handbook of Texas Online: Samuel Augustus Maverick; Mary Ann Adams Maverick). The James and Maverick families were close, and John James and Samuel Maverick were involved in real estate ventures together.
Artist Robert Jenkins Onderdonk (1852-1917) studied art in New York at the prestigious National Academy of Design and the Art Students’ League, where he was instructed by some of the most famous U.S. artists of the time and had for classmates other artists who would later become prominent. Desiring to study in Europe, he visited San Antonio in 1879, intending to paint portraits for wealthy clients and thereby finance his European studies. That project did not materialize, however, and he turned to teaching art classes, which was an activity that he continued throughout his life, achieving great success and influence upon Texas art and artists.
After ten years in San Antonio, Onderdonk went to Dallas to work for the Hullburt Portrait Company. In addition to that work, he taught art classes, and his students’ works were routinely exhibited at the Texas State Fair, as were his own, for which he won several prizes. In 1895, however, family problems forced his return to San Antonio, which he left briefly a few years later to work as a china painter in St. Louis. Back in San Antonio by 1900, he turned again to teaching and painting and founded several art organizations in that city, including the San Antonio Art League in 1912. He is best remembered in Texas art history for his monumental, iconic canvas “The Fall of the Alamo,” which was commissioned by historian James Thomas DeShields and remains probably the most famous rendition of that battle, showing buckskin-clad Davy Crockett almost single-handedly defending the Alamo, swinging his rifle like a club before an advancing multitude of menacing Mexican soldiers. His other heroic painting, “The Surrender of Santa Anna,” was destroyed by fire.
William H. Goetzmann comments in the introduction to Cecilia Steinfeldt’s Art for History’s Sake (p. xx): “The Dutch-descended Onderdonks, Robert and Julian [Robert’s son], created the first tradition in and around San Antonio, though they followed in the wake of the military-expedition artists like John Mix Stanley or another immigrant, the Haitian-born John James Audubon, who visited Texas in 1837.” Goetzmann compares Robert Jenkins Onderdonk’s art work to the Missouri masterpieces of George Caleb Bingham. Onderdonk’s early scenes and landscapes of San Antonio and South Texas capture the freshness and appeal of the region in the latter years of the nineteenth century. Artworks like this one impart truth and historical relevance, but Onderdonk’s artistic bequest extended far beyond such beautiful local history images and contributed to the growth of art education and appreciation in Texas. ($10,000-$20,000)
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