Friday, August 07, 2015

The Truth of the American West

“Study art, not to do, but to know,
then it may be that what you do will be worthwhile.”
Frank Reaugh

The history of Texas is synonymous with longhorn cattle and synonymous with them both is the impressionist inspired plein-air artist Frank Reaugh.

Upon his return from a year in Europe in the summer of 1889, Reaugh has been reported as saying “Other painters of that day were busy crossing the water to paint the peasantry of the old world, or were satisfied with the hills or coastline of the East. Indeed, there was little opportunity or inducement for them in the barren cattle country. The cattle were wild and the range was vast and barren. There was hardship and danger, and from the cowboys little welcome. For me, however, the great southwestern cow country had a wondrous charm.”

Reaugh had first experienced this southwestern charm as a 16 year old when with his family they had traveled by covered wagon from Illinois in 1876 to take up a small farm in Kaufman County east of Dallas.

It was there that the young Reaugh fell in love with the “illimitable distance” and “skies that were beautiful, grand or awe inspiring.” And grazing on the grass lands that surround the family farm were herds of Longhorn cattle. About which he has said “No animal on earth has the beauty of the Texas steer.”

Encouraged by his mother the adolescent Reaugh would sit amidst the grazing herds "to study their form, the workings of their muscles, their character and habits, their characteristic spots and markings, and their wonderfully rich and varied colors."

He also had the opportunity to experience the cattle round ups were his interest was with the cattle and the landscapes with the antics of the cowboys being incidental, contrary to his contemporary’s like Remington and Russell and their confrontational man against nature depictions.

After a winter at the St. Louis School of Fine Arts and his year in Europe, Reaugh returned to Texas and the following year moved with his parents from the farm to Dallas. There he established himself as an artist of some note and a teacher, eventually earning the epithet, the Dean of Texas Artists.
Reaugh’s annual month long pilgrimages into West Texas to paint and camp out, far from man and civilization were popular with his students. On these trips he would use his home made pastels to capture “the feeling of air in a landscape.”

As he has explained “A sketch from nature should be a true full record of things seen, free from anything else. It should be a definite time and place and a reliable work of reference. It should not be retouched or changed in any way after it leaves the place of making…Nature’s beauty of design is matchless.”

Over his 60 year career Reaugh produced over 7000 works and stipulated in his will “It is my wish that these pictures be kept together if only for historical reasons. They create the spirit of the time. They show the sky unsullied by smoke, and the broad opalescent prairies not disfigured by wire fences or other signs of man."

The exhibition Frank Reaugh: Landscapes of Texas and the American West is currently on show at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center until the 29th of November.

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