Julian Onderdonk was born in San Antonio, Texas, to Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, a painter, and Emily Gould Onderdonk. His grandfather Henry Onderdonk was the Headmaster of Saint James School in Maryland, from which Julian’s father Robert graduated.
He was raised in South Texas and was an enthusiastic sketcher and painter. As a teenager Onderdonk was influenced and received some training from the prominent Texas artist Verner Moore White who also lived in San Antonio at the time. He attended the West Texas Military Academy, now the TMI Episcopal, graduating in 1900.
At 19, with the help of a generous neighbor, Julian left Texas in order to study with the renowned American Impressionist William Merritt Chase. Julian’s father, Robert, had also once studied with Chase. Julian spent the summer of 1901 on Long Island at Chase’s Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art. He studied with Chase for a couple of years and then moved to New York City to attempt to make a living as an en plein air artist. While in New York he met and married Gertrude Shipman and they soon had a daughter, Adrienne.
Onderdonk returned to San Antonio in 1909, where he produced his best work. His most popular subjects were bluebonnet landscapes. Onderdonk died on October 27, 1922 in San Antonio.
President George W. Bush decorated the Oval Office with three of Onderdonk’s paintings. The Dallas Museum of Art has several rooms dedicated exclusively to Onderdonk’s work.
His art studio currently resides on the grounds of the Witte Museum.
Harry A. Halff and Elizabeth Halff spent twenty years gathering his works into a book they published called Julian Onderdonk: A Catalogue Raisonne. The San Antonio Museum of Art created an exhibit to coincide with the publication of the book which included 25 of Onderdonk’s paintings from January 20-April 23 2017.
Painting the Wild Blue Yonder
San Antonio artist Julian Onderdonk left an iconic Texas legacy
Written by: Heather BrandPhotos by: Witte Museum, San Antonio, Texas
Published: March 15, 2020 at 12:00 am
For many Texans, taking photographs of bluebonnets is an annual tradition. But in the early 20th century, Julian Onderdonk was among the first artists to capture these spring blooms with a camera; he then used these black-and-white images as the basis for his finely colored drawings and paintings. Over the span of his career, he created in excess of 1,000 works, and more than 200 were of these iconic lupines. He depicted them in all kinds of conditions: at dawn, midday, and dusk; under azure skies dressed up with puffy white clouds; and even through a scrim of rain. His loose, expressive brushstrokes conveyed the vibrant beauty of the thick-growing flowers, particularly in the areas near his hometown of San Antonio, where they blanketed rolling hills stretching into the hazy distance or popped up in bright spots of color amid the rocky terrain.
Born in 1882 in San Antonio, Onderdonk received artistic training from his father, the painter Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, before traveling to New York at the age of 18 to study at the Art Students League under renowned American Impressionist William Merritt Chase. However, even while living on the East Coast, he maintained his connections to his home state. In 1906, he agreed to procure works to be exhibited at the annual Dallas State Fair (now the State Fair of Texas) and continued to do so for the remainder of his life.
After marrying and starting a family of his own, Onderdonk eventually returned to Texas in late 1909 and applied the artistic lessons he had learned to his native landscape. “San Antonio offers an inexhaustible field for the artist,” he once commented. “Nowhere else is there such a wealth of color. In the spring, when the wildflowers are in bloom, it is riotous: every tint, every hue, every shade is present in the most lavish profusion.” The Texas Legislature declared the bluebonnet the state flower in 1901, and Onderdonk began to make it his focus in the years following his return. The sweeping vistas of indigo hills that he went on to produce in multitude earned him the moniker “the bluebonnet painter.”
Yet Onderdonk portrayed other, less-celebrated flora as well: golden fields of coreopsis, clusters of cacti sporting orange and yellow blossoms, scraggy mesquite trees, and live oaks with twisting limbs and dense canopies. Empty dirt roads sometimes wind through these idyllic scenes, leading the eye to the far horizon. The Guadalupe and Medina rivers figure prominently in several of his canvases, their clear waters flowing past limestone bluffs or pooling quietly along the banks.
Although best known for his impressionistic oil paintings, Onderdonk worked in other mediums too, producing preliminary drawings, pastels, and watercolors in preparation for his larger canvases. These sketches offer insights into his artistic methods, particularly in his close study of plant life.
A number of these studies, as well as his finished paintings, now reside in the Witte Museum in San Antonio, which has the largest collection of Onderdonk holdings in the state—88 works in all, plus some of his sketchbooks, tools, notes, and photographs. In addition, the museum relocated the artist’s much-neglected studio from the backyard of his former home on West French Place to its grounds in 2008. Now open to the public, the diminutive building (measuring about 300 square feet) displays an easel, modeling stand, bookshelves, and painting racks to give visitors a sense of Onderdonk’s working environment.
Bruce M. Shackelford, who serves as Texas history curator at the Witte Museum, consulted on the conservation of the studio. He emphasized the importance of preserving the artist’s legacy: “Julian Onderdonk’s work is important internationally, not just in Texas. He was a brilliant painter who completely understood the light and landscape of the Texas he lived in and depicted it in beautiful illusions of the outdoors.”
Aside from the Witte Museum, the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Villa Finale in San Antonio have a number of Onderdonk’s works in their collections. Examples also can be found across the state: at the Bryan Museum in Galveston; the Dallas Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Stark Museum of Art in Orange, to name just a few.
Onderdonk’s paintings drew accolades during his lifetime and after his death at age 40. Ultimately, his work helped launch the now-ubiquitous genre of bluebonnet art, which has inspired legions to document the flowers in various mediums. “Blue wildflowers are not real common,” Shackelford says. “It’s a subject a lot of people pick, but there’s a great difference between those works and Onderdonk’s.”
Many have followed in his footsteps, yet few have matched Onderdonk’s masterful style. Although the flowers he once painted are long gone, his atmospheric landscapes live on, preserving their timeless beauty for generations to come.
The Witte Museum, 3801 Broadway St., San Antonio. 210-357-1900;
Julian Onderdonk: beyond his fields of bluebonnets
October 23, 2018/in Be Smart
NEW YORK – If asked to name a Texas artist, many might immediately think of Julian Onderdonk, a favorite with collectors of regional art both in and beyond the Lone Star State. Famous for his majestic paintings of fields filled with bluebonnets, Onderdonk is no one-trick pony. He deserves a place in art history as a talented impressionist who has painted much more than plein-air landscapes.
He forever changed the once-prevailing impression that Texas art was strictly Western in theme and dominated by depictions of hardworking cowboys, proud Native Americans and endless herds of cattle. His lyrical paintings, embracing both realism and tonalism, ushered in a new era.
Born in San Antonio in 1882, Onderdonk was a natural when it came to sketching and painting. His father, also a painter, encouraged his son’s talent and enthusiasm. The younger Onderdonk found inspiration in the vast Texas countryside and its breathtaking scenery.
In his teenage years, Onderdonk took artistic training before entering a military academy. Like his father before him, he went on to study under the renowned William Merritt Chase, and pursued an art career in earnest while living in New York City.
After marrying and returning to his native San Antonio in 1909, Onderdonk set about creating some of his finest depictions of the Southwestern landscape, from rivers bathed in a golden afternoon light to Spanish oaks, cactus, morning mists, the effects of the four seasons in the hill country, and, of course, his beloved bluebonnets. His art earned him the moniker of “Father of Texas painting.”
“His love of the Texas landscape and plein-air interpretation of it inspired artists who followed him,” says a commentary on the website of Harry Halff Fine Art in San Antonio, which produced a catalogue raisonne on the artist in 2016. That project led to a major touring exhibition titled “Julian Onderdonk and The Texas Landscape.”
Owing to his untimely death at the age of 40, Onderdonk’s career was cut tragincally short, but what he left behind was exceptional and timeless. Julian’s sister Eleanor, an artist herself, wrote of her brother, “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.”
The market remains strong for his work, and his paintings are in many fine private collections and museums, especially Texas institutions, including the Dallas Museum of Art, which has several rooms devoted to Onderdonk’s work.
One of the standouts in the Dallas museum’s collection is Onderdonk’s Road to the Hills, which was restored in 2015 and went back on public view after nearly 60 years. The artist’s career was at a peak when he created this painting in 1918. It shows a bright and striking midday sun hitting an empty Hill Country road. The painting, according to DMA Chief Conservator Mark Leonard, is “a tour-de-force departure from the theme of the bluebonnet, and, consequently, reveals the wider range of the artist.”
Heritage Auctions, based in Dallas, Texas, holds the auction record for the artist’s paintings, which routinely bring six-figure prices. In November 2013, it sold “Blue Bonnet Field, Early Morning, San Antonio Texas,” 1914, for $515,000. That and two other Onderdonk paintings in the same sale totaled $1.1 million.
“It is no surprise such a painting would set a new world record. Julian Onderdonk is a great American artist, and there was significant interest in these paintings from outside the state, but at the end of the day Texas collectors were simply not willing to let them leave the state,” said Atlee Phillips, Director of Texas Art at Heritage Auctions. “We sometimes forget that, as big as Texas is, her artists are even bigger.”
Onderdonk painted many bluebonnet paintings but each time creating a different scene and mood — stormy and gray or warm and bathed in sunlight. “Texas loved their bluebonnets when Onderdonk was alive, and they still love them today,” said Wes Cowan, principal auctioneer and executive chairman, Cowan’s Auctions, Inc., in Cincinnati, Ohio.
In 2017, the San Antonio Museum of Art presented the exhibition “Julian Onderdonk and the Texan Landscape,” with contents that ranged from atmospheric impressions of the Hill Country and Texas bluebonnets to views of New York’s Long Island. “Julian Onderdonk’s work still influences the way visitors revere — and artists paint — the Texas landscape,” said William Keyse Rudolph, PhD, the museum’s Marie and Hugh Halff Curator of American Art and Mellon Chief Curator in a press release on the exhibition.