Julian Onderdonk in New York: The Lost Years, the Lost Paintings by James Graham Baker
When avocational historian Dan Kilgore delivered his presidential address to the Texas State Historical Association and declared that Davy Crocket did not, in fact, go down swinging “Old Betsy” at the Alamo, but instead was captured and executed by Santa Anna, Texans arose in protest. Texans are intensely proud of their history, and Kilgore’s notion was blasphemy. Likewise, Texas academic historians voiced skepticism at Kilgore’s thesis. How could someone not trained in historiography and academic methodologies dare to threaten the hegemony that “true scholars” hold over “facts”?
With the burgeoning interest in art objects made historically in Texas, known widely as “early Texas art,” Texas art collectors have become as protective of “their” artists as Texana collectors of, well, Texana. Thus, James Graham Baker’s addressing of the New York period of one of the favored sons of early Texas art in this work is bold indeed. Furthermore, as a self-trained art historian unversed in the gospel of Ernst Gombrich and Heinrich Wolfflin, Baker challenges the exclusive club of academic art historians.
Previous monographs devoted to either the Onderdonk family or to [End Page 90] Julian himself have tended towards particular agendas. The title of Cecilia Steinfeldt’s The Onderdonks: A Family of Texas Painters spelled out this noted scholar’s particular framework for Julian’s work. She fully embraced Onderdonk’s focus on Texas wildflowers, particularly bluebonnets, and noted that his “legacy . . . [has] made a notable lasting contribution to the art history of Texas art” (The Onderdonks, p. 112). More recently, William Rudolph in his Julian Onderdonk: American Impressionist proposed that Julian should be considered in the same company as other American Impressionists, including Onderdonk’s mentor, William Merritt Chase. As the “legatee and exponent of Chase’s modernity,” Julian “united East and Southwest” (Julian Onderdonk, p. 40).
Through years of painstaking research, Baker has taken on a heretofore verboten part of Julian Onderdonk’s career. In particular, Baker examines Onderdonk’s regrettable business arrangement with Charles E. Tunison, in which the Texas artist signed his own paintings with pseudonyms for Tunison to sell. Both Steinfeldt and Randolph glossed over this regrettable part of Julian’s career. Moreover, instead of following these previous scholars in planting Julian in either the Texas school or among the American Impressionists, Baker selects for him a place at the table of the American Barbizon movement. Baker uses the paintings Julian produced in New York from about 1901 to 1909 to support his argument. To be sure, Julian Onderdonk painted in two stylistic worlds, and Baker does an estimable job of placing him squarely within the American Barbizon camp as a devotee of George Inness, Alexander Helwig Wyant, and Homer Dodge Martin. However, while Julian often painted with an Impressionist’s brush-stroke, many of his New York paintings also reflect the influence of Dutch paintings of The Hague School, his father Robert Onderdonk (and perhaps his Dutch ancestry), and American Tonalism.
Baker presents his case effectively using all manner of tools. Handwriting analysis, conservation reports, and the sheer number of works he has located and examined lend credence to his research. However, poor photography in some places, along with disorganization, hamper his fine effort. Nevertheless, this book is vital to understanding that Texas artists often created some of their finest works outside of Texas and on subjects not found in Texas. At piece of art is good or great regardless of where it was created. Baker’s argument that Onderdonk’s New York paintings deserve serious study as part of his oeuvre is convincing.
Baker speculates that had Julian Onderdonk stayed in New York, he “would have been remembered as an important late tonalist painter of the Mid Atlantic region” (162). This seems optimistic. However, to this student of early Texas art, Baker hits the nail square on the head when he writes that with his monograph “a full assessment of [Julian Onderdonk’s] work will elevate him even further in the estimation of lovers of [End Page 91] American art” (161). I would simply add that this “full assessment” should also elevate Onderdonk’s work in the estimation of lovers of early Texas art as well.