Best Western

A Dallas exhibit shows how painter Frank Reaugh made high art of the open range. So why doesn't he get any respect?

October 2001By Comments

Courtesy of The McKinney Avenue Contemporary (MAC)

Frank Reaugh, who belongs on any shortlist of our state’s greatest artists, has no real competition in the category of most underrated—and most misunderstood—Texas artist. Nationally recognized at the beginning of the last century, Reaugh (pronounced “Ray”) cranked out more than seven thousand oil paintings and pastels during a career that spanned eight decades. Yet he isn’t even a token presence in most of the state’s major museums; the only public display of note is at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, in Canyon, where the Reaugh estate ended up in 1960 after being scorned by several more-august institutions. He was one of the co-creators, along with Frederic Remington, of the so-called cowboy art genre. Yet his luminous West Texas landscapes and carefully observed scenes of East Texas trail drives, arguably the last authentic vision of the American frontier any artist would produce, are usually dismissed as wimpy and sentimental by Western art enthusiasts for whom Remington’s chest-thumping costume dramas, painted from props in his studio on Long Island Sound (and now commanding whole galleries in various Texas museums), have long been gospel. Reaugh has gotten even less respect from mainstream curators, who have overlooked not only his standing as the most advanced Texas artist of the nineteenth century but also his role as a mentor to many of the state’s most progressive twentieth-century artists. A Leonardo-like polymath who excelled at music and patented a sophisticated rotary pump, Reaugh has been reduced by posterity to a homespun caricature, a rawboned, second-rate limner of beef on the hoof.

It isn’t surprising, then, that the first major Reaugh exhibit in decades is being held not in a major Texas museum but in Dallas’ frisky alternative space, the McKinney Avenue Contemporary (MAC), where it runs through October 21. A collaboration between the MAC and the Texas Art Collectors Organization (TACO), “Symphony of Shade and Light: Frank Reaugh and His Students” crowds the picture with a sprawling representation of almost three dozen Reaugh disciples, at least one of whom, Alexandre Hogue, is more familiar to art audiences than the master himself. But the show’s hundred or so Reaughs—plucked from the Canyon cache of about eight hundred by the Panhandle-Plains museum’s resident Reaugh expert, Michael Grauer—are nothing short of revelatory. Loaded with rarely seen works from the most innovative phase of the artist’s career—roughly 1885 to 1910—this outing argues that, in addition to deserving an opportunity to show up Remington and Russell in the Western galleries, Reaugh could hold his own in any major collection of late-nineteenth-century American landscape paintings.

Born in rural Illinois in 1860, Reaugh arrived in Texas via covered wagon, a fifteen-year-old who, in his own words, “had never yet seen an original painting or any good work in color.” His father, a former gold prospector, blacksmith, and cabinetmaker, settled the family in East Texas, near Terrell, on a small ranch and cotton farm surrounded by what Reaugh described as a seemingly “illimitable distance.” Despite the isolation, the teenage Reaugh was already determined to be an artist—an ambition his mother encouraged—and he educated himself by poring over black and white photos and engraved magazine reproductions of works by an eclectic but discerningly selected assortment of distinguished Europeans: Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, the French landscape painter who inspired the Barbizon School and the Impressionists; the English proto-Impressionist Joseph Mallord William Turner; and the popular French animal specialist, Rosa Bonheur.

While Reaugh struggled to absorb, in monochrome, the lessons of distant art capitals, he found his subject matter close at hand. In 1880, when he still listed his occupation in the census as “farmer,” he did the little pencil drawing Untitled [Tree Sketch]; the capillarylike networks of leafless twigs are drawn with a line as delicate and precise as silverpoint. But nothing riveted the neophyte artist’s eye as much as the huge herds of Longhorn steers that grazed near the Reaugh spread, fattening up on their journey from South Texas to the Kansas stockyards. Reaugh’s passion for what he fondly referred to as the “Texas steer” is often regarded as a quaint, peculiarly Texan fixation, but in fact he was following in the tradition of animaliers like Bonheur, who were avidly collected by Continental cosmopolites. Reaugh pursued his subject with monomaniacal focus, studying skeletons and consulting a text on bovine anatomy; in an almost daily ritual, he planted himself in the tall grass beneath a large umbrella and waited for his notoriously cranky quarry to approach, recording anatomical details with remarkable fluency in pastel, the tricky medium he came to prefer. In the early 1880’s, Reaugh befriended cattle baron Frank Houston and became the only artist of any distinction to join an actual trail drive, shortly before Texas’ 1884 fence-cutting law closed the open range.

Reaugh’s formal education was brief but trenchant. In 1884 he studied at the School of Fine Arts in St. Louis, where he almost certainly saw actual paintings by some of Europe’s leading artists, an exposure that evidently whetted his appetite. After a few months Reaugh returned to the ranch, organized the Frank Reaugh Art Study Club, and began giving lessons and selling his pastels for $20 to $50 each. By 1888 he had saved enough money to sail for Europe and enroll at the Académie Julian in Paris, then the mecca for serious American artists abroad. He soaked up French Impressionism and saw original Turners for the first time, but he was most impressed by the work of pastelist Maurice Quentin de La Tour and Anton Mauve, a leader of the Netherlands’ influential Hague School who was noted for his atmospheric gray-and-silver landscapes populated by sheep and cattle (today Mauve is more likely to be remembered for having tutored his wife’s cousin, a struggling young artist named Vincent van Gogh).

Although he spent less than a year abroad, Reaugh returned to Texas with a sophisticated synthesis of European trends. Preceding generations of westering American artists had painted Western icons like the Rocky Mountains and the mountain man in the conservative, classicizing style of the Düsseldorf Akademie; Reaugh, the first American artist to document the trail drives, was also the first one to essay the West with a forward-looking, Impressionist-influenced style. (New York audiences had gotten their first look at French Impressionism in a sensational 1886 show, but the style continued to shock critics well into the twentieth century.) Our view of a work like Reaugh’s large pastel Watering the Herd (1889), a panorama of Longhorns circling a stock pond near Henrietta, is obscured by a century of cowboy art clichés (Reaugh himself knocked off versions of this composition decades later), but here we are witnessing the genesis of a genre, inaugurated with a freshness of vision and brilliance of execution it would never reach in any other hand. The soft olive foreground hues echo Corot and the Barbizon School; the dazzling whites of hide and horns, a technical tour de force in smudge-prone pastel, flash over the surface in a more controlled variation on Bonheur’s blazing highlights.

By the time Reaugh painted The Approaching Herd, in 1902 (exhibited to glowing notices at the Art Institute of Chicago a year later), he was already in Remington’s shadow. Less than a year younger than Reaugh and the son of a powerful Ogdensburg, New York, publisher, Remington had dropped out of Yale and blown his inheritance on a Kansas sheep farm in the mid-1880’s. But as a correspondent and an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly magazine, Remington fired the national imagination, retailing the exploits of Indian fighters and a little-known Western laborer called the cowpuncher. His cinematic scenarios were over-the-top horse operas inevitably enacted in a hostile, sunbaked, relentlessly ocher desert; it was always high noon in Remington’s West. The Approaching Herd represented a contrary and far more authentically observed vision: The inquisitive lead steers, viewed head-on, are masterfully foreshortened and magisterially posed; the subtle mauve grasses and purplish shadows, rendered with stitchlike impressionistic brushstrokes, evoke an untrammeled prairie Eden that men entered with awe and reverence, not as action heroes in a Manifest Destiny epic. (“Remington,” Reaugh later commented, “knew little about cows and was principally interested in the cowboy as wild man.”) Artistically, Reaugh was a good decade or two ahead of Remington, who finally tried to adopt the hip new impressionistic style shortly before his death, in 1909; Reaugh’s appreciation for the delicate ecological harmony of wild cattle and pristine prairie was a good half-century ahead of his time.

Reaugh’s most formidable legacy may turn out to be his landscapes, most of them tiny pastels that somehow match the grandeur of the huge, Düsseldorf-style vistas that made Albert Bierstadt the star of the nineteenth-century Western landscape genre. Reaugh manufactured his own pastel sticks, which he could evidently sharpen to a pencillike point, packing astonishingly fine details and panoramic sweep into a format usually smaller than four by seven inches; Untitled [Color Notes] (c. 1885-1890) is a single page covered with nine tiny landscapes, each an almost surrealistically complete evocation of a distinct moment and place. But Reaugh’s real magic lay in his often hazy, allusive color, as daring and original—despite its subtlety—as anything in the American landscape tradition. Lightning(1884) parallels the contemporaneous preference for misty, closely keyed color among tonalists like James Abbott McNeill Whistler or George Inness in his later works, but here Reaugh constrains his palette to a storm-tossed gray sky infused with the dusty pink of sunset and cleaved by a single white stroke of lightning; the wind-blurred foreground is rendered in a port-tinted chocolate more characteristic of Mark Rothko’s paintings of the mid-sixties than of anything in nineteenth-century American art. In Untitled [Tree Over Pond] (c. 1905-1910) a scummy green East Texas watering hole erupts into a shimmering concerto of multihued reflections reminiscent of Monet’s pond at Giverny. In their abstract clarity and limpid Southwestern colors, some of Reaugh’s West Texas scenes of mesas and mountains looked forward to the Taos School of the twenties. Yet he often portrayed the endless expanses of bluestem grass in a startling—to our eyes—almost marine palette; the proverbial sea of grass can at times look more like the bed of some fantastically pellucid ocean. These almost otherworldly prospects, Reaugh pointed out years later, were accurate pictures of a once “opalescent” prairie that was soon despoiled by voracious fenced herds and cotton farming.

Reaugh moved his studio to Dallas in 1890 and exhibited to critical acclaim in galleries and museums from Chicago to Boston through the first decade of the twentieth century. By the twenties he had become North Texas’ bearded art guru, each summer taking bohemian contingents of talented young artists and adventuresome society girls on sketching trips out west. In the thirties former Reaugh students like Alexandre Hogue and Harry Carnohan formed the nucleus of the progressive regional school known as the Dallas Nine, grabbing national attention with sere, hard-edged, contemporary visions of the Dust Bowl West. Reaugh suffered in comparison; touring with a multimedia stage presentation of large canvases reworking trail-drive images that had been fresh almost half a century earlier, he looked more like a pioneer of the nascent Texas nostalgia industry than a prophet of modernism. After Reaugh died, in 1945, his reputation collapsed even further. The Frank Reaugh Art Club, a legacy of his extensive culture-building efforts in Dallas, joined his former student Reveau Bassett in a red-baiting campaign against the European modernists (“commie artists,” in Bassett’s estimate) exhibited by the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts during the mid-fifties. The transformation—and the irony—was complete: Reaugh, who had ushered Texas art into the twentieth century by embracing advanced European influences, became a posthumous symbol of xenophobic reaction.

Reaugh’s rehabilitation awaits a major Texas museum with the intellectual courage to mount an intensively researched Reaugh retrospective, taking advantage not only of the Canyon holdings but also of large, largely unseen collections at Texas Tech University and the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, and perhaps tracking down a few of the possibly hundreds of Reaughs squirreled away in attics across Texas. In the meantime—and it is likely to be a long time—we can thank the MAC, TACO, and the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum for a rare glimpse of a true American original.

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