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:

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!