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