Seeking Picturesque Texas

For those who are used to touring art museums in the Northeast, Frank Reaugh is not a name that can be heard or found frequently. But upon my arrival to Texas, one fact ignited my interest in this artist: the only Texas artist who exhibited at the World’s Columbia Exposition in 1893 was not Frederic Remington or Charles Russell, but Frank Reaugh.

Reaugh was prolific, having created more than 7,000 works during his life time. Reaugh was also inventive. Not only did he create portable lap easels and cases, craft his own pastels, but also patented a rotary pump and customized his open-air Ford bus serving his sketching trips for two decades. And Reaugh was influential. His many expeditions to the West exposed many art students from his art school to the plein air sketching and painting.  Several artists of the famed Dallas Nine were his pupils.

Yet Reaugh is elusive to art lovers outside Texas who tend to associate art of American West with only two iconic painters – Remington and Russell. His collection has been mostly divided into possessions of several lesser known institutions, especially Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas.  And he favored small sizes in most cases, many no larger than a five by seven inch photo. Even when you are willing to pursue those small pastels scantly available in the market, the price can be stunningly high. Some auction houses price them based on the number of longhorns in the work. If we normalize values of paintings based on the amount of dollars per square inch, Reaugh is certainly on a par with Remington and Russell.

The current exhibition “Frank Reaugh: Master of Pastels and the Plains of Texas” at UNT on the square in Denton provides a rare opportunity for North Texans to see an extensive collection of the works by the “Dean of Texas painters.” It includes complete or sketch works in pastels and oil, some of his inventions such as a lap easel, pastels and a pastel case, photos, sketch books, some students works and even a work desk that Reaugh used in his life time. It is modified from a square grand piano.

In Remington and Russell, the life and strife of the American West loom large. Blatant or sensitive, cowboys or Indians, the narratives have been as compelling to the New Yorkers at the turn of the century as to some today. But Reaugh’s interests are in the wilderness of Texas landscape, for him cowboys were just once an integral part of the untamed land. That could explain, perhaps partially, why he is not well known outside Texas. Upon my arrival from New York, a colleague of mine, who is originally from Princeton, NJ, commented that North Texas was not picturesque. Yet Reaugh was not interested in the traditional formula of grand or exotic landscapes, instead he encapsulated the open expansiveness of west Texas into minuscule scaled works on paper. It is hard to paint small-sized pictures to represent infinite airiness; it is harder to do so with a near minimalistic efficiency. So great was Reaugh’s artistic facility that his succinct choice of colors (lavender, purple, bluish green) projects a psychological awareness of nature in which the light dominates everything and even the gigantic longhorns are simply dots of reference points between far and further.

Although many cows, rendered near the horizon lines, are more or less suggestive, a few studies in the exhibition show that Reaugh was a keen observer of animal anatomy. Some biographical material confirmed that he obtained an animal anatomy book from early on and had mentioned influence from a few leading European animal artists (such as Sir Edwin Henry Landseer or Paulus Potter). In one pastel study, he drew several cows at different angles in great detail and wrote down the time of the day when the study was made. In one particular example, besides the writing of “9 a.m.”, he marked an arrow pointing 4 o’clock angle toward a reclining cow, whose fur shines like silver at various angles out of a warm hue. Among other unusual works that demonstrated his artistic versatility, two small pastels show a close-up depiction of goldenrods or cardinal flowers. It is difficult to know to what extent he had interacted with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, which was popular two decades before he began his career. But I was fond of that sensual sensation with saturation and exactness out of abandonment in the lonesome nature – that beauty almost made me tremble as I stopped and started looking.

It doesn’t take long to begin to understand why he would not move out of Texas, as a landscape painter. These works in the exhibition, not only prove his talent and skills but also his passion and intellectual integrity to his adopted homeland. (He moved to Texas from Illinois when he was 16 years old.) Both Remington and Reaugh lamented the disappearing of Old West. Reaugh, in one case, asked the viewers to examine his paintings from a narrative point of view; as he said “aside from any artistic merit that they may possess, will tell their story, and will be preserved because of historical value; for the steer and the cowboy have gone, the range has been fenced and plowed, and the beauty of the early days is but a memory.” If the motives resonate with those of Remington, the two could not be further apart with their perspectives. In Reaugh, Texas was in a state of purity and harmony in his prime days when “the sky unsullied by smoke, and the broad opalescent prairies not disfigured by wire fences or other signs of man.” It is no accidental that Reaugh chose pastel as his main media for its intimacy, immediacy and spontaneity and perhaps most of all, like Texas landscape itself, the jewelry colors of pastel are best kept when left untamed, unblended and “unsullied”.

Eric’s favorite is a pastel painting of a thunderstorm in which a fierce flash of lightning pieces through the darkened sky. Having been in Texas for over a year, especially after many stormed tornado nights, it becomes all too familiar. Although only nine inches wide and less than six inches tall, it has the most tension in the whole exhibition.

Another powerful image is from the collection of Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. “A Stampede” is one of the largest pastel works (16 by 32 inches) I have seen by any given artist. Again, like the small thunderstorm picture, Reaugh favored an image with enormous value range, although most colors are dark. Unlike the rest paintings in the exhibition, the openness and timelessness give in to the rampant speed of the stampede. Upon closer inspection, I have found many colors he used to suggest the contours of rows and rows of cows like a orderly chaos. Many, with their backs lit by the glows of the rising sun, create a rhythm of motion. Similar curves and lines are repeated in other lesser illuminated area with red, purple, and green, etc. They not only give the mass of herds overall depths and suggestive individual forms, but also recall the deafening pounding sound of the nature wonder.

“Frank Reaugh: Master of Pastels and the Plains of Texas” is now shown at UNT on the Square in Denton TX till Oct 1. The gallery location is 109 N. Elm Street. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and Friday; 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 8 p.m. Thursday; and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.

Further reading – Frank Reaugh: Painter to the Longhorns (Joe and Betty Moore Texas Art Series)

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