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David and Art - "Bluebonnet Season"

If the bluebonnet is the Texas state flower, a painter named Julian Onderdonk should be the state’s favorite painter.

Each spring finds a lot of people in Texas eagerly anticipating the arrival of the bluebonnets. This year they seemed to come out a little bit early, and much to my delight, I've seen some pretty thick patches of them, at least around here in Central Texas. For how much the state loves its bluebonnets, which became the state flower in 1901, a painter named Julian Onderdonk is surprisingly little known beyond very narrow circles. Remember that year, by the way.

For a Texan not to know the name Julian Onderdonk is a little like a French person not knowing the name Claude Monet. Onderdonk is sometimes referred to as the father of Texas painting and more than anyone else he made the bluebonnet the focus of his landscapes.

Onderdonk was born in San Antonio in the summer of 1882. His father Robert had come to Texas four years early, having studied art at the famed Art Students League in New York City. Among his teachers was famed American impressionist William Merritt Chase.

Upon his arrival in Texas, Robert founded some of the first art clubs in the state. By far his most famous painting—and probably the most famous single representation of Texas history, fanciful as it may be, is entitled Fall of the Alamo, which he painted in 1903. If you can shut your eyes and see an image of a surrounded Davy Crockett, swinging his musket over his head as the army of Santa Ana closes in,with smoke heavy in the air, you’re imagining Robert Onderdonk’s painting.

Under Robert’s influence, his son Julian took to painting naturally and when he was 19 headed for New York to study with his dad’s old teacher William Chase. Julian spent the summer of 1901 out at Chase’s school at Southampton, where for years he taught students how to paint out of doors, capturing the play of sunlight, clouds, and wind on the sandy hills along the coast.

Julian moved back to San Antonio in 1909. Two years later, armed with his natural ability and what he’d learned on Long Island, he discovered the intense visual impact of fields of bluebonnets. Not only was it a painterly breakthrough, it was also a financial one, for his paintings proved immensely popular. Reproductions of his canvases sold out at San Antonio department stores. Ninety years later some of those original paintings would be hanging in the White House.

Julian Onderdonk died in 1922 at the peak of his success when he was only 40.