Call them the Magnificent Onderdonks; from Yankee transplant Robert Jenkins Onderdonk to his San Anto-born children Julian Robert and Eleanor Rogers Onderdonk, this forward-thinking and creative family encouraged the arts in San Antonio from the 1880s until the Kennedy Administration.
Born in Maryland to a genteel family, Robert Jenkins Onderdonk studied at the National Academy of Design from 1873-1874. However, a schism at the school over curriculum led to young Robert joining with other disaffected students to form the Art Students League of New York, an alternative school helmed eventually in part by celebrated artist William Merritt Chase.
In 1879 Robert headed South to Texas, perhaps lured by the promise of making money in a land of fledgling fortunes, perhaps lured by the exoticism of the Southwest. In any case, he married San Antonian Emily Rogers Gould, and set up shop painting society portraits and still lifes as well as teaching classes at the Van Dyke Art Club, which went on to become the San Antonio Art League. His best-known painting is probably “The Fall of the Alamo,” painted in 1903.
Well-respected in San Antonio for his erudition and manners, Robert nonetheless struggled with shyness, advising his daughter Eleanor in a letter that “my trouble has always been that I could not push myself forward and I do not want my children to follow my example.”
Born and raised in San Antonio, Julian Onderdonk graduated from the Texas Military Institute in 1900. Then Julian spent several years in New York City, where like his father he studied under William Merritt Chase at the Art Students League. He married Gertrude Shipman in 1902, with whom he had two children. Julian struggled to make a living, producing anything from Central Park snow scapes to images for print advertising. He was even hired to retouch other painters’ works, grousing to a friend about such an assignment in 1904, “I have to remove Adam from the Garden of Eden and leave Eve with just the trees and a big log. `The client` will then call the picture ‘The Captive’ and it will be ruined.”
In 1906, Julian’s father aided him in getting a position working for the Texas State Fair in Dallas, acquiring artworks for exhibition. In 1909 he and his family returned to San Antonio, where he dedicated himself in earnest to capturing his home landscape.
The bluebonnet genre became a lucrative one for Julian, and his regional landscapes became recognized both locally and nationally. In 1922, his paintings “Dawn in the Hills” and “Autumn Tapestry” were shown in the 1922 exhibition of the National Academy of Design in New York. Sadly, Julian had passed away unexpectedly just a few months earlier at the age of 40, during surgery for a bowel obstruction.
Eleanor enjoyed a happy and creative childhood in South Texas, then like her father and brother studied at the Art Students league in New York City before returning to San Antonio. Eleanor painted and drew, specializing in miniature portraits on ivory, even winning a prize from the Southern State Arts League in 1929. However, her visual-arts career was eclipsed by her curatorial one, as she took over the position of Art Curator at the Witte in 1928.
In 1929, Eleanor curated a “Post-Modern French Painting Show” at the Witte, which included works by Derain, Dufy, Picasso, Redon, and Roualt. It was not a hit.; contemporary writer Bess Carroll at the San Antonio Light decried the paintings as “grotesque, bizarre, fantastic, and even insane.”
Undaunted, Eleanor went on to organize exhibitions and add to the permanent collection until her retirement on May 4, 1958, which the city declared “Eleanor Onderdonk Day.”
In a rare interview with her from that time, she chided the reporter, “Don’t make me out to be anything great. I just work.” Eleanor passed away on November 11, 1964. A memorial gallery at the Witte is named after her.
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