Villa Finale’s Texas Artists: Mary Bonner

In part two of our Texas Artists series, Villa Finale’s Visitor Services Coordinator, Lisa Stewart gives readers an introduction to printmaker, Mary Anita Bonner whose beautiful prints can be found throughout the museum’s rear hallway staircase. It may sound strange for these attractive works to be displayed in a rear staircase, but this is the area of the house Walter Mathis used from day-to-day so it only makes sense for them to be located where he would have been able to admire them the most.

Enjoy part two of this series, and do make sure you visit us soon to get a better of look at these timeless prints. You really do need to see them in person to truly appreciate the artistry!

Lisa Stewart

Mary Anita Bonner (1887 – 1935)

Mary Bonner was born in Bastrop, Louisiana. She and her brother and sister spent their formative years on the family plantation. In 1897, six years after her father’s death, her widowed mother and two siblings moved to San Antonio. The city was considered a “health resort” in the late nineteenth century due to its relatively dry climate and its reputation for being a place with cultural opportunities. The family was drawn to the San Antonio River and acequias which reminded them of the bayou where they had lived.

San Antonio, ca. 1900. This is how the city looked when Mary and her family moved here. (From Pinterest)

Mary began formal art training at about age 16, and while it is not clear if she studied with the father, Robert, or the son, Julian, she did get training from the Onderdonks. It is believed, however, that her first art teacher was Robert Onderdonk. 

1922 was a significant year in Mary’s evolution as an artist. While spending time in Woodstock, New York, a mecca for artists, she saw an exhibition of lithographs that interested and inspired her so much that she decided to study printmaking. While on this trip, she found the nearest printmaker who was 4 miles away. Mary hiked the trip to visit him, and was, at first disappointed that he said he did not want to teach her lithography. He told her he didn’t think she was strong enough to handle the often very heavy materials and tools for lithography.

However, he recommended pursuing etching instead, and thus began her career. At this time, Mary Bonner was totally committed as an artist by the urging of the lithographer she met in Woodstock. She devoted herself to her art and although she created beautiful work in many mediums, she was most prolific as a printmaker.

Artists at work, Woodstock (from woodstockchamber.com).

Mary lived mostly in San Antonio, but also traveled with family to Europe. The artistic climate there was most likely very appealing to her. Although Robert Onderdonk’s daughter Eleanor, also an artist, had established a career in the arts as Curator of the Witte from 1927 to 1958, the Onderdonk’s overall experiences as struggling artists in Texas made it evident to Mary that there was only minimal encouragement and little stimulation for artists in Texas. The University of Texas, for example, had no art department. 

Along with her experiences in 1922 in Woodstock, and her enthusiasm for the artistic opportunities in Europe, Mary decided to set sail to France. She was quite aware that it would be easier for a woman to study art in Europe than in the United States at this time. Once settled in her small apartment in Paris, she went from studio to studio in search of a printmaker she wanted to be her mentor and teacher. She chose printmaker Edouard Leon, whom she felt offered the kind of instruction she sought.

Edouard Leon with Mary Bonner (fromrondougherty.com).

Mary became known mostly for her etchings of Texas cowboys, cowgirls, and ranch life. Her medium expanded to watercolors as well. She was the only noted early 20th century woman popularizing Texas subjects and she received international recognition for a piece called “Texas,” which was a group of three etchings based on Texas ranch life. In the early-mid 1920s, her work was exhibited in salons in Paris, and among others, the Department of Prints and Drawings of the British Museum, and the Print Room of the New York Public Library, and certainly, in San Antonio. One of her signature details was using the landscape for borders around her subject matter, rather than as background. If you look carefully in these borders, you will find rattlesnakes, centipedes, cactus, horned frogs, bats, and more.

Edouard Leon, Mary’s mentor, along with his wife, considered Mary as part of their family and in 1927 accompanied her to San Antonio after a whirlwind of exhibiting and lecturing in several cities in the northeast. Edouard was exhibiting at the Witte – a solo exhibition of his etchings – and was also to serve as one of three jurors for the second Texas Wildflower Exhibition. While they were in San Antonio together, Mary and Edouard managed to spend most of their time painting and sketching in the Spanish missions and other scenic places in and around the city.

From there they went to Houston where Mary’s etchings were on exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts and following that, to New Orleans and Philadelphia. By this time, some reviews of their exhibitions suggested that Mary Bonner’s talent had surpassed her master.

As Mary’s mother got older and ill, she felt it was time to return to San Antonio. Mary got very involved in plights and causes of artists in San Antonio, working hard to raise funds not only for art and artists, the museums and art leagues, but also conservation efforts and the Conservation Society of San Antonio.

Part of Villa Finale’s rear staircase where many of Bonner’s works are displayed (from the Villa Finale Collection).

Sadly, Mary died in San Antonio at the young age of 48 from a blood clot, while recovering from a surgery for ulcers. As a memorial in 1936, Eleanor Onderdonk, who was the curator at the Witte Museum, displayed a retrospective exhibition of Mary’s work which generated enough enthusiasm in printmaking to create the Mary Bonner Graphic Arts Club in 1937. 

To see how you can make your own etching at home à la Mary Bonner, watch Villa Finale’s “Let’s Start with Art!” here: