Book Review: Julian Onderdonk’s Lost Paintings

Julian Onderdonk, signed Chas. Turner, untitled (Mexican Woman with Jacal), n.d. (ca. 1905), 8 X 12", oil on canvas. Julian painted a number of scenes like this with Hispanic women, a jacal or rural dwelling, the Juniper and cacti, often the scenes were in the abandon quarry to the north of his family home.

Julian Onderdonk is best known today as a painter of misty landscapes covered in bluebonnets. His work is the pride of museums and his paintings, particularly those of Texas Hill Country landscape, are highly sought by collectors. But a large portion of his work remains to be discovered.

Julian’s father, Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, was a New-York trained artist who relocated to San Antonio, where Julian was born. Julian Onderdonk also went to New York for academic training- both father and son were taught by William Merritt Chase. Julian Onderdonk returned to Texas after nine years away. However, had he stayed in New York, instead of being known as a painter of Texas bluebonnets, he may be better known today as one of the American Tonalist painters.

The story leaves room for further study and appreciation of work created during Julian Onderdonk’s New York years. That’s the matter taken on in the book Julian Onderdonk in New York, The Lost Years-The Lost Paintings by James Graham Baker.

Some works by the artist created while living in New York have been misattributed by wishful dealers, curators, and owners in Texas. As an example, a 1902 work titled Galveston Wharf Scene is most certainly a New York wharf scene. Others were hidden from future collectors and curators because the artist signed them with pseudonyms. Today the work by Julian Onderdonk remains what Baker calls “one of the best-kept secrets in American art.”

Onderdonk was friends with many other artists in the city including noted American Tonalist John Francis Murphy. He was influenced by French Barbizon painters, including Alexander Helwig Wyant (who taught his father) and by George Inness. Julian helped his father recruit New York artists such as George Henry Smillie to display their work at the Texas State Fair.

Still the fact is today Julian Onderdonk’s works are often more sought after than some other New York artists of the period; they also often command higher auction prices. That centers on his Texas connection. Hungry collectors from Texas have placed his works depicting the Lone Star State in the highest demand.

But what is the New York story? What of the New York paintings?

Julian Onderdonk, signed Chas. Turner, Harbor Scene, 1906, 16 X 24", oil on canvas.
Julian Onderdonk, signed Chas. Turner, Harbor Scene, 1906, 16 X 24″, oil on canvas.

Baker’s book lays the groundwork for a complete discovery of the works created during the nine years spent in the Big Apple. There are currently some 400 works identified as being painted by the prolific artist during this period and likely many others.

Strangely there aren’t many paintings from certain years of his New York period, and Baker seeks has an explanation.

Baker’s book makes the case that works signed by Chas. Turner or Chase Turner was actually painted by Onderdonk. Matching updates that coincide with a dearth of paintings by the prolific artist and providing other stylistic evidence, one begins to connect the dots. As Baker explains it, some paintings look as though Onderdonk set up two easels, signed one painting with his name and the other with the pseudonym.

It appears Onderdonk was more of a New York artist than previously believed. He wasn’t just studying in New York, but living and working there as an artist. More importantly, bringing the lost paintings into light may help more firmly establish Julian Onderdonk as a well-known American artist.

Even in the New York period, there is still a lot of Texas in Julian Onderdonk. While he undoubtedly saw New York through Texas eyes, it seems clear both he and his father saw it necessary to spend time in New York to acquire the advanced training necessary to become skilled at painting the landscape, whether it be New York or Texas. Moreover, his influence by the Tonalist painters of New York allowed Julian Onderdonk to see the Texas landscape in a very different way than many native Texas painters who focused on the hard light.

Collectors sometimes like to see art through a regional lens, but few artists are only of a specific locale. You can’t separate his Texas-colored glasses from the skill and background of an artist trained in the burgeoning center of the art world. It took the Texas experience and the New York experience to become the artist he was.

In retrospect, the move to Texas was wise. Being the state’s pre-eminent painter is arguably a better lot in life than one of a school of Tonalist painters.

For collectors, however, knowing what you’re looking for can prevent you from seeing what is there. In this case, that can mean hundreds of paintings, and the story of a great American artist. This book begins to pull the curtain back the cover on the rest of Julian Onderdonk’s story.

Paintings:James and Kimel Baker Collection

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