Villa Finale’s Texas Artists: The Onderdonks

The Villa Finale collection includes some notable Texas artists, including Robert Julian and his father Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, and Mary Bonner.  In fact, Mary Bonner was, early in her studies as an artist, a student of Robert Jenkins Onderdonk.

Lisa Stewart, practicing artist and Villa Finale’s Visitor Services Coordinator, offers a quick introduction to the work of Julian Onderdonk and his father Julian. Be sure to check out Lisa’s accompanying art project here (YouTube link) and stay tuned in May for a continuation of this blog series, with a focus next on the life and work of Mary Bonner.

Lisa Stewart

Robert Julian Onderdonk (1882 – 1922)

“Julian”, as he was referred, was raised in San Antonio, Texas, and was often called “the father of Texas painting.” He received his initial art training from his father, Robert, but eventually studied with other artists, such as Texas artist Verner Moore White, also a San Antonian.

Julian was inspired while taking long walks, visiting patrons’ homes and ranches along the river, and on his drives into the Texas Hill Country. His interest in botany and wildflowers is evident in his paintings and detailed drawings. Viewers are invited into his landscapes with many variables such as different placements of the horizon line, changing seasons, and times of day.

His love of the Hill Country is expressed through his art, and his words.

“There are several distinctive features of this country…the cacti in bloom, in the sunlight; the blue-bonnet, as it blooms in masses on the hillsides; the gulf clouds that roll by here in the mornings; the head waters of the rivers where the color is wonderful in varying lights of the day; the live oak trees; the wide reaches of rolling hills; and the brush country in winter.  These subjects are my dreams, my aims, my work…an every-changing symphony of color…”  (From Villa Finale’s Collection)

Julian Onderdonk was truly not only a painter and naturalist, but a poet in the way he expressed himself.

“The dazzling beauty of these roads impels me to park my car in the dust, and heat, and work.  The same roads are wonderful in color at late afternoon and at twilight.”

The Onderdonks managed on very little income, but at the age of only 19, with the help of a generous neighbor, Julian was able to leave Texas to study in New York with renowned American Impressionist, William Merritt Chase.

He spent the summer of 1901 taking outdoor painting classes at Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art on Long Island, New York. After his summer of study, Julian moved to New York City to try and make a living as an “en plein air” artist. He met his wife there, Gertrude Shipman, and had daughter Adrienne.

Portrait of Julian Onderdonk by William Merritt Chase (The Witte Museum)

By 1906 Julian was splitting his time between New York and San Antonio. He spent a lot of time studying other Naturalist artists in New York City museums, especially the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History. He exhibited in both cities, most notably in New York City at the National Academy of Design.

Finally, in 1909, Julian returned to San Antonio permanently with his wife Gertrude and their two children Adrienne and Robert where, according to reviewers, he produced his best work.

Unfortunately, at the peak of his success, Julian died of intestinal obstruction and appendicitis. However, Julian’s work, and that of his father, Robert, can be seen in museums beyond San Antonio, and even in The Oval Office under George W. Bush, who, during his presidency, decorated its interior with 3 of his paintings.

Julian Onderdonk’s art studio now resides on the grounds of the Witte Museum.

Robert Jenkins Onderdonk (1852 – 1917)

Julian’s father, Robert Onderdonk, was a long-time art teacher who formed art associations and leagues to support and promote other artists.

Robert Onderdonk studied at the National Academy of Design and Art Students League, both in New York City. One of his teachers, William Merritt Chase, founded the Chase School of Art, which later became Parsons School of Design.

“Buffalo Hunt” by Robert Onderdonk (from Wikimedi Commons)

Robert was from Maryland and had a friend, Robert Negley, who had already moved to Texas (in 1878) to become a rancher. Robert hoped to make portraits of rich Texans to earn enough money to travel to Europe but didn’t accomplish that. He stayed in Texas for 38 years and was an important influence for artists in Texas.

Robert Onderdonk founded the Van Dyck Club which was an art association for women painters.  It later became the San Antonio Arts League. His daughter Eleanor was an important member and organizer. The Arts League still thrives today, supporting local artists with exhibitions and classes.  

Robert Onderdonk (from WikiArt)

Robert Onderdonk wasn’t ambitious, nor was he careful in signing his work. Despite painting hundreds of portraits, he never earned a suitable living.  For example, he only charged $3 per month for studio classes. He did a little better went he went to Dallas (1889) when he was offered $100 per month to teach.

Several of the first art clubs in San Antonio were organized by Robert which helped to develop state and nationwide interest in Texas art and gave Texas and American artists places to display and the opportunity to win awards.

Robert was known to always carry a wood panel (such as a cigar box top) so he could paint small scenes wherever he went. His most famous work was “Fall of the Alamo,” painted in 1901 – a large commission by well know Texas historian, James T. DeShields. He also provided the illustrations for the autobiography of Texas gunfighter, John Wesley Hardin, known as “the fastest gun in the west, east, north & south,” published in 1896.

Check out this art tutorial video about landscapes featuring our own Lisa Stewart!

Is Villa Finale … HAUNTED?!

We get a lot of questions from visitors at Villa Finale, and one of the most asked is: is Villa Finale haunted? I can’t say that our entire staff believes in ghosts – I, personally, am on the fence – but all of us have experienced things that can sometimes be a little difficult to explain. Since we have three historic buildings at Villa Finale, I will make sure to cover our experiences at all three.

Villa Finale: The Main House

The Norton-Polk-Mathis House – now known by the name “Villa Finale” – was built in 1876. It had a total of 12 different owners before being owned as a historic house museum by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, so its walls have seen a lot of people come and go! Perhaps its old walls have recorded events of times past, but some of us have heard voices coming from the basement, footsteps coming from the main and rear staircase, and footsteps in the Green Rooms. Here is a video taken by John Brannon, a contractor who was working on a rewiring project in the house in 2017. John was making this video to show his son, who shares his love for historic houses, when he caught an extra set of footsteps in the Green Rooms. (This happens around :50 in the video. Sound up!)

I’ve also heard the sounds of what could be labeled as “footsteps” coming from behind me in the Green Bedroom. I was standing at the doorway with my back to the room as I was speaking to my colleague, Buildings & Grounds Manager Orlando Cortinas, who was across the hall in the Blue Room. As I stood there, I clearly heard someone walking behind me toward the door of the room, they suddenly stopped when I looked back. Were these really footsteps or just a figment of our imagination? As far we know, at least one person has died inside Villa Finale – this was back in the 1940s.

Listen to our staff share their “haunting” experiences in this video.

The Carriage House

Villa Finale’s Carriage House, 1968.

The Carriage House dates back to the early 20th century (we don’t have an exact date). Walter Mathis used it as a guest house, and prior to that, other owners used it as a rental property so again, many people have been through this building. Today, we use it as a reception area for visitors and our staff offices. Almost all of us have heard sounds in the Carriage House including voices and footsteps coming from upstairs.

I should note, I have had my desk stationed in almost all the rooms in the Carriage House, including upstairs, but I never had anything considered “strange” happen to me while I was on the second floor. During our first-ever ghost hunt at Villa Finale last year (due to COVID concerns, we will not be hosting one this year), participants recorded some strange sounds in the Carriage House during the event. Were these ghostly? If you’re wondering if anyone has died in the building, we know of at least one young woman who died in that location in 1931.

Want to hear more about the happenings at the Carriage House? Watch this video.

The Meusebach House

Let me begin by saying, I honestly do not know what to say about this house as far as the “activity.” Built in 1886 by Smith and Josie Ellis, the house was sold to Otto and Martha Meusebach in 1889 and this family occupied the home for several years. Several people lived in the house after the Meusebachs, including Walter Nold Mathis’ sister, Agnes.

Otto Meusebach

Today, the house is owned by the National Trust as part of the Villa Finale “complex.” It houses the museum’s research library and it is used for small meetings and programs, as well as storage for a variety of Villa Finale’s supplies. Museum staff is regularly in the building – some staff have even lived there – needless to stay, all of us have spent plenty of time in the house. As I said at the start, I really don’t know what to make about what happens in the building other than, it is something else! Like in the Carriage House, we’ve heard footsteps as well as movement of objects when no other person is in the building. Staff have also reported lights turning on and off.

All of us independently agreed, we are all quite a bit “unsettled” with one particular area of the house: the staircase and adjoining hallway. I’ve had an “experience” there and, after some casual conversation, two of our staff discovered they saw what seemed to be a “man’s figure” at the top of the stairs on separate occasions. Although going to the Meusebach House is needed throughout the week, none of us are “dying” to go over there alone!

Interpretive Guide, Sara Breshears at the foot of the “infamous” Meusebach stairs. She has been spending a lot of time over there alone while working on a project: what a trooper!

So, has anyone died in the house? I learned an older man may have died there post Meusebach era, but I do have documented proof a teenage girl, Anita Meusebach, died in the house in 1900. In fact, as was the custom back then, her wake was in the home. Is the Meusebach House haunted? We can’t say for sure as we don’t have any recorded proof. Maybe everything we’ve seen and heard could be reasonably explained. But until we know for sure, those of us who work at Villa Finale will make sure we spend as little time over there as needed!

In this video, our staff shares some their odd experiences with you!

Care to find out if Villa Finale is truly “haunted”? Join our staff online for a fun and, hopefully not-too-scary, Facebook LIVE virtual ghost hunt on Friday, October 30, 2020 at 7:00pm! Click on the link below for event information … BOO! Happy Halloween!

https://www.facebook.com/events/732597814266329/

Villa Finale Retreats to Forth Worth – Part 1

How many other work places take you on a retreat to visit places of interest?  Villa Finale’s staff has that unique opportunity. The past two years the staff visited Galveston but this year we went north to Fort Worth!  The trip began in the early morning hours of Tuesday, January 27th as the staff gathered – coffee cups in hand – on the grounds of Villa Finale ready to board our big white rental van (christened “the iceberg” during the trip) for the 4.5 hour drive north.  After a brief stop for breakfast goodies, our Fort Worth exploration began with a guided tour of the Japanese Garden.  Built in 1973 inside the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, the 7-acre site was once a gravel quarry and dumping place for manure produced by the military’s equine.  Years of manure droppings made it an ideal location for the growth of lush green plants.  Many of the plants were donated by businesses and individuals, not only from Fort Worth but throughout the United States.  The result is a lush paradise of fine greenery accessible by winding paths which whisk you away to another place.  The bridges, rolling hills and decks provide a tranquil place of reflection and serenity.  If you ever visit, make sure you feed the Koi – they are eager to make your acquaintance!

After a well-deserved night’s rest everyone was up and ready to go for another day of cultural expansion.  Wednesday morning’s first stop was Thistle Hill, a mansion built in 1904 now owned and operated by Historic Fort Worth, Inc. a local partner of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Historic Fort Worth was founded in 1969 to preserve the city’s identity through stewardship, education and leadership. The organization was gifted the property in 2005 but not before it was saved from demolition in 1974 by a group of concerned citizens who raised $240,000 to purchase the property.  That came during a time when many of the city’s oldest and most beautiful homes – located in a once opulent area called Quality Hill – were being razed for parking lots and modern businesses.  Citizens knew a part of the city’s rich history would be lost if some of the homes weren’t saved from the wrecking ball, and, indeed, Thistle Hill is a gorgeous treasure!

The home was built as a wedding gift by Albert Buckman Wharton – who owned Fort Worth’s first auto dealership – for his new bride, Electra, the beautiful daughter of one of the city’s wealthiest cattle barons.  As I listened to this I thought, wow, what a great wedding gift!  Some of us would get luck to get a crock pot!  And Albert spared no expense – he paid $46,000 (that’s well over $1 million dollars today) for the 11,000 square foot abode that, although grand in every way, is incredibly practical and comfortable.  I was most particularly impressed with the wall decor in what used to be the billiards room; the walls have several inspirational quotes and sayings. The Whartons didn’t live in the house very long before they sold it to Elizabeth and Winfield Scott in 1911.  The Scotts immediately began remodeling the home from its original Colonial design to a Georgian Revival style.  Unfortunately, Mr. Scott died a few months after the property was purchased and never lived in the house.  Mrs. Scott and her son Winfield, Jr. moved into the house in 1912 after all remodeling projects were completed.  Thistle Hill would be her home for the next twenty-six years during which time she hosted a variety of social events.

After Elizabeth’s death in 1936, Winfield, Jr. sold the home to the Girls Service League as a safe and positive place for young women to live while they completed their education.  However, as women became more independent and it was “acceptable” for young ladies to be out on their own, the need for Thistle Hill as a rooming house became irrelevant and the organization abandoned the building.  The house was left empty for a number of years until it was purchased in 1974.

Historic Fort Worth also owns the Ball-Eddleman-McFarland House only a few blocks away; this was our next stop.  Now the headquarters of Historic Fort Worth, the first floor can be rented out for small private events and weddings.  Although smaller than Thistle Hill, the Victorian charm of this home can be seen inside and out.  The Queen Anne style Victorian house was constructed in 1899, also in Quality Hill, by Sarah Ball, the widow of George Ball, a wealthy banker in Galveston.  Sarah, who paid roughly $38,000 to have the house built, chose this site not only because it sat atop a bluff above the Trinity River – thus providing great views – but also because it was right next door to her physician, Dr. Joseph Pollock.  Ball died in 1904, merely five years after the home was constructed, and that same year it was purchased by William H. Eddleman, a cattleman and founder of Western National Bank.  Eddleman and his wife had one daughter, Carrie, who was the light of their life.  When Carrie met and fell in love with Frank H. McFarland, the Eddlemans gave their blessing as long as McFarland didn’t take their daughter too far away after marriage.  So what did the couple do?  They moved in with Carrie’s parents: now there’s a gentleman for you!  The Eddlemans remodeled an upstairs bedroom as a suite for the young couple, and the four lived under the same roof until the death of Carrie’s parents.  Frank McFarland died in 1948 and Carrie lived in the home until her death in 1978 – that is a total of 75 years in one home!

The McFarland house is very beautiful and charming.  The exterior features turrets, gables, carved sandstone, marble and copper.  The interior is rich with colorful stained glass, splendid woodwork including coffered ceilings and parquet floors throughout and so much more!  I could go on and on about the features of this home, but it really is something you have to see for yourself.  It’s wonderful that the Junior League of Fort Worth purchased the home in 1979 thus saving it from eventual demolition before it was purchased by Historic Fort Worth.  Both Thistle Hill and the McFarland House are available for guided tours.

So much to tell about places we visited during our trip to Fort Worth!  I will be blogging about the rest of our trip over the next few days.  Villa Finale’s staff would like to thank our wonderful docents at the Japanese Garden, Mr. and Mrs. Winn; Diann at Thistle Hill, Jimmy at McFarland House, as well as Historic Forth Worth, for their generous hospitality!