The current exhibitions at the San Antonio Museum of Art and its sister institution, the Witte Museum, weren’t planned in concert, but they neatly bracket the history of Texas art. “Art for History’s Sake,” at the Witte, takes us as far back as the dawn of statehood, while SAMA’s “The Perfect World in Contemporary Texas Art” marks the dramatic, powerfully original debut of a new generation of artists. Both shows run through January 12.
The Witte exhibit—gleaned from the Texas holdings of both museums’ parent organization, the San Antonio Museum Association—includes about one hundred works covering a span of roughly as many years, but the emphasis is on the nineteenth century, a period largely unrepresented in other Texas collections. As “Art for History’s Sake” makes clear, much of Texas’ best nineteenth-century art is currently in San Antonio because it was created there. And by focusing on images of the city and its people, curator Cecilia Steinfeldt, who has researched the collection for decades and is a prolific author on the subject, vividly recreates the era when San Antonio was the state’s uncontested cultural capital.
In the 1840’s San Antonio had something neither Dallas nor Houston could claim: a past. When Seth Eastman, a career soldier who became one of the most important artists to document American Indian life, was sent to Texas to command a company of mounted infantry in 1848, the San Antonio missions were already crumbling monuments to Spain’s vanished empire. Painting from sketches made during his two-year Texas tour, Eastman endowed Mission San José with the grandeur of a Roman ruin—its dome and long arcades gleaming russet-gold in the sun, the gray thunderclouds behind it adding to the romance of the image.
Other observers saw an equally glorious future. William G.M. Samuel, an Indian fighter who came to Texas shortly after the fall of the Alamo and later served as city marshal of San Antonio, painted four crude but colorfully detailed views of San Antonio’s Main Plaza as it appeared in 1849. Bustling with wagon trains, oxcarts, stagecoaches, a U.S. mailman, dogfights, and Mexican women serenely balancing clay water jugs on their heads, Samuel’s urban panoramas depict a raucous entrepôt of America’s newly won Western empire.
Much of the city’s growth was due to the industry of European immigrants for whom Central Texas had become the promised land of economic opportunity and democratic ideals. Theodore Gentilz studied cartographic drawing in Paris before coming to Texas in 1843 to help Henri Castro lay out the Alsatian community of Castroville; two years later he moved to San Antonio, where he was a local fixture until his death in 1906. As a painter, Gentilz was more tourist than poet, but his precisely detailed, postcardlike images offer insights into the city’s curiously harmonious mix of upwardly mobile European émigrés and disenfranchised Mexican natives. In Tamale Vendor, Laredo Street, San Antonio (circa 1890), a street merchant passes a characteristic Mexican house, the thin layer of whitewashed caliche peeled away to reveal the rubble-and-stick construction of the walls. A considerably more upscale ambience is shown in his 1882 rendering of St. Mary’s College, where he taught drawing for thirty years; the solid, no-nonsense Victorian architecture of the building was recorded in his deadpan style and neat-as-a-pin technique.
Hermann Lungkwitz, a German native principally remembered for his accomplished, broodingly romantic Hill Country landscapes, provided the best immigrant’s-eye view of aspiring San Antonio. In Crockett Street Looking West (1857), Lungkwitz created a strikingly beautiful cityscape, its skyline of towers, domes, and colonnaded facades, marble-white against a glowing blue sky, as exotic as Tangiers and yet as dignified as classical Athens.
A former star pupil at Dresden’s Royal Academy, Lungkwitz was by far the best-trained artist to work in Texas in the mid-nineteenth century. But his student Ida Weisselberg Hadra, born in Castroville in 1861, might have challenged her master if not for her untimely death at age 24 (married to an elderly gynecologist, she died in childbirth). In Hadra’s The San Antonio River at St. Mary’s Street Bridge (1883), the lush trees and mysteriously glimmering water convey the sublimity of Lungkwitz’s best work, but the central feature of the landscape is a then-high-tech iron bridge. If Hadra had lived, she might have fashioned a link between mid-nineteenth-century pastoralism and late-nineteenth-century realism.
Another intriguing figure in Lungkwitz’s circle was Carl G. von Iwonski, an immensely talented but largely self-taught artist who arrived from Silesia as a teenager in 1845. The son of a former Prussian army officer, Iwonski was a jack-of-all-trades who worked as a saloonkeeper, drawing teacher, tax collector, and photographer in partnership with Lungkwitz. Iwonski’s natural fluency as a draftsman is evident in Young Stieren (1863), a sensitive pencil portrait of a San Antonio boy. Iwonski’s painting technique, stiff at first, was later honed by a year of study in Berlin, and he returned to do exceptional oil portraits of San Antonio businessman Edward Steves (a Prussian immigrant who had worked as a carpenter and cabinetmaker before founding his own lumber company) and his wife, Johanna. In the paintings, done in 1872—73, Iwonski deftly combines his sitters’ plump, rosy-cheeked air of prosperity with a sense of the toughness and determination that got them there.
San Antonio was also a popular venue for itinerant painters. Bostonian Thomas Allen’s Market Plaza, painted during an 1878—79 visit to the city, records the Mexican community’s tradition of alfresco dining with the same gaudy extravagance with which a contemporaneous French salon painter might have imagined a scene from a seraglio. Like Allen, Robert Onderdonk had no intention of staying when he arrived in 1879; a Maryland native academically trained in New York, he hoped to make enough money painting wealthy Texans’ portraits, such as his enormous pastel bridal Portrait of Edna Geils Simpson Robertson (1890), to finance further study abroad. Onderdonk never did get to Europe; he remained in Texas as a vastly influential teacher and arts activist, both in San Antonio and in Dallas.
Robert Onderdonk’s most distinguished pupil may have been his son, Julian, long