Beyond Bluebonnets

AMSET exhibit highlights Texas Impressionism

Impressionism is arguably the most popular art in the world. Impressionist works are pleasing to the eye, romantic and unpretentious. We easily relate to these paintings because they evoke memories that we all have — memories of a sunny day when time stood still and we suddenly became acutely aware of beauty around us, be it a gorgeous view, a dewdrop on a blade of grass, or a colorful pattern of shadows on the ground as the sunbeams weave their way through the foliage of a tree.

Harold Dow Bugbee (1900-1963), J A HORSE WRANGLER, circa 1925, oil on canvas, Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Gift of Don Scott Hagy in memory of Lawrence Hagy

It is hard to imagine that in 1874, when Impressionism made its debut in Paris, it was not well received by the public. People were appalled by the paintings in which shapes seemed to have no volume and, at a close examination, disintegrated into separate brushstrokes. However, it was not too long before the shock of the new passed and the public fell in love with the paintings which made them not just see what the artist saw, but virtually re-live the experience of being “there” with him.

In the United States, Impressionism had the same history as in France and in the rest of the world. One of the earliest shows, which featured 250 French Impressionist works in Durand-Ruel Gallery in New York in 1886, generated a controversy unlike any other exhibition in the United States, according to William H. Gerdts. While the overall attitude was negative, certain works were received with “tempered enthusiasm” — namely, the landscapes by Claude Monet and the figural works by Edgar Degas and Auguste Renoir.1

Landscape painting quickly became the most popular genre in American Impressionism. The exhibition, “Texas Impressionism: Branding with Brushstroke and Color, 1885-1935,” at AMSET is a testimony to this fact. The show amazes, soothes and mesmerizes the viewer with the breathtaking views of boundless plains covered with a carpet of wild flowers, quiet brooks in the forest and blazing sun-drenched desert with a lonely cactus. The geography of Texas seems to be perfectly suited to showcase the strength of the Impressionist approach to nature which focuses on capturing the flickering light and vibrating atmosphere.

For those of us who are not intimately familiar with the history of Texas Impressionism, the sheer scope of the exhibition, which features more than 100 works by dozens of artists, is a revelation in itself. Bluebonnet paintings by Julian Onderdonk, as one may expect, are a part of the show, however, they do not dominate the scene. As we move from one work to another, we find ourselves irresistibly drawn into an illusory world masterfully recreated by yet another unfamiliar artist. But don’t be hard on yourself, this ignorance is not entirely our fault. Despite the proliferation of work by highly talented artists, Texas Impressionism has not received its due attention in American art scholarship. This exhibition, organized by Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas, is the first one to bring into the spotlight this important era in the history of Texas art.

The catalog of the exhibition provides ample information on the subject. Written by Michael R. Grauer, the associate director for curatorial affairs and curator of art at Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, the catalog is an exciting read and there are some enlightening facts.

The first mention of Impressionism in Texas dates back to 1884 when the Galveston Daily News reprinted an article from New York about the exhibition at the National Academy of Design on Jan. 2, 1884. However, it was not until the 1890s that Texas artists started actively painting en plein air, which is essential for the Impressionist art process. This slight lagging behind compared to the East Coast is understandable within the historical context. Texas was still a frontier state and, as Esse Forrester-O’Brien wrote in 1935, “Art is especially slow where scalping is in style.”2

The trailblazers in Texas Impressionism were Emma Richardson Cherry and Frank Reaugh. Both were educated in well-known American and European art schools and spent time at the art colony in Giverny, France. This little place near Paris became synonymous with Impressionism because Claude Monet lived and painted there for the better part of his life. Upon their return to the United States, both artists became actively involved in promoting Impressionism through exhibitions and teaching.

The list of Texas Impressionists is long and includes artists of many nationalities. Among them is an Englishman, Dawson Dawson-Watson; a Spaniard, Jose Arpa; and a German, Paul Schumann. Texas also attracted artists from different states who found here their source of inspiration. At the same time, aspiring Texas-born artists typically went to study art in New York or Chicago and then Europe. Upon completion of their studies, some of them preferred to live outside Texas, but, nevertheless, played an important role in the history of Texas Impressionism.

One such artist was Lucien Abrams from Dallas. Having studied at the Art Student League in New York and then at the Académie Julian in Paris, Abrams lived and traveled in Europe between 1894 and 1914. With the onset of World War I, he returned to the United States and settled in Old Lyme, Conn, which had a burgeoning art colony known as the “American Giverny.” Abrams divided his time between Old Lyme, his family house in Dallas and a winter residence in San Antonio. As Grauer points out, “A ‘rediscovery’ on the Texas art scene through his work exhibited in Texas, his own collection of French Impressionist paintings, and his connections to France proper, Abrams may have been the most direct conduit from French Impressionism to Texas.”3

It seems fitting to end this review with another quote from Grauer, “…Texas Impressionists branded their paintings with brushstrokes and color unlike those found anywhere else. Even without official affirmation, ‘It’s been quite a party, ain’t it?’”4

The exhibition “Texas Impressionism: Branding with Brushstroke and Color, 1885-1935,” is on view through Jan. 5.

AMSET is located at 500 Main in downtown Beaumont.

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1 William H. Gerdts, “The Golden Age of American Impressionism” (New York: Abbeville Press, 1984):15-16. In: Michael R. Grauer, Texas Impressionism: Branding with Brushstroke and Color, 1885-1935 (Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Canyon, Texas, 2012):13-14.

2 Esse Forrester-O’Brien, “Art and Artists of Texas” (Dallas: Tardy Publishing, 1935):4. In: Texas Impressionism:11.

3 Michael R. Grauer, “Texas Impressionism: Branding with Brushstroke and Color, 1885-1935” (Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Canyon, Texas, 2012): 24.

4 Ibid., 35. The included quote is Augustus McRae’s final words in Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove.”

Elena Ivanova
ISSUE Contributor