DALLAS In a new exhibit of the work of Texas landscape painter Julian Onderdonk, a cavernous room holds variations on the subject matter for which he was best-known: bluebonnets.
The room, painted in a purplish-blue to complement the depictions of Texas' state flower, features about two dozen paintings of bluebonnets, from the flower interspersed with cacti in rough Hill Country terrain to lush fields in full bloom.
"They vary in size. They vary in mood. They vary in finish," said William Keyse Rudolph, curator of the exhibit that opens Sunday at the Dallas Museum of Art.
The exhibit "Bluebonnets and Beyond: Julian Onderdonk, American Impressionist" features more than 90 works. Following its Dallas run, which ends July 20, the show will tour other Texas towns, stopping at the Witte Museum in San Antonio from Sept. 18 through Jan. 11, 2009, and the Stark Museum of Art in Orange from Feb. 10 through May 24, 2009.
As the name of the exhibit implies, it looks at Onderdonk as more than just a man known for bluebonnets. The works span his days as an art student in New York under famous teacher William Merritt Chase to his paintings exploring the landscape after returning home to Texas. And paintings done before he died at the age of 40 in 1922 following intestinal surgery hint at the direction his work might have taken.
"Dawn in the Hills," painted not long before he died, depicts the first rays of morning opening across a misty field with hills rising in the background. It has a more abstract quality than other works.
"He's starting to respond to abstraction," Rudolph said. "It is much, much more evocative instead of descriptive."
Some of his later works show signs of change. But others show him going back to something familiar, landscape scenes similar to what he learned from Chase.
"There's this sort of back and forth," Rudolph said.
Later in his life, Onderdonk also became increasingly busy organizing art exhibitions for the Texas State Fair, which then included trips to New York to select art, Rudolph said.
Onderdonk was born in 1882 in San Antonio. His father, Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, was himself a working artist. Just before his 19th birthday, he went to New York City to study art. That summer, he studied with Chase, who had taught his father as well.
Chase, who also instructed such artists as Georgia O'Keeffe, had a summer school on New York's Long Island. The Dallas exhibit begins with a room comparing landscape works by Chase to Onderdonk's to show the teacher's influence.
"When you put them side by side, you see what Julian learned from his teacher," Rudolph said.
After the summer, Onderdonk lived and worked in New York City, painting city scenes and bucolic island views. In 1909, he moved back to San Antonio.
Onderdonk often did several paintings of the same scene from different perspectives. For example, in a series of paintings of the Guadalupe River, one work focuses on the river, one pans out to show the wider landscape and another puts the emphasis on cliffs over the river.
Rudolph sees Onderdonk's bluebonnets as an extension of his obsession with nature. And capturing the flowers in full bloom was a challenge. In bloom for only a few months each year, the flowers could have a good or bad year depending on conditions.
"They are sort of bound up in one artist's search in nature," he said.
"If you want to understand nature, something that's pretty, beautiful and uncertain is a great challenge," Rudolph said.To complement the Onderdonk exhibit in Dallas, the Dallas Museum of Art has compiled an exhibit on another floor featuring nearly three dozen works by Julian's father.
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