- By Jeanne Claire van Ryzin American-Statesman Staff
The box of oil pastels might just be the best starting point for “Frank Reaugh: Landscapes of Texas and the American West,” the sprawling exhibit just opened at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center.
Dubbed the “Dean of Texas Artists” and the “Painter of the Texas Cow,” Reaugh devoted himself so high-mindly to creating, as he once wrote, “a truthful record of things seen,” that he developed a custom palette of pastel colors in hues that matched those of the Texas flora and fauna and best captured the subtleties of the vast, ever-changing Texas sky.
An exhibit case displays an open wooden box of Reaugh’s pastels — and also an unopened box still in the “Reaugh Pastels” wrapper.
An inveterate entrepreneur and inventive tinkerer, Reaugh (1860-1945) developed a line of pastels that he sold commercially, especially to students who signed up for his regular weekslong sketching trips across West Texas.
Ditto the portable lap easel: Reaugh patented and manufactured his own type of artist’s easel, designed for lightness and ease of travel and with a folding support leg allowing the artist to be seated.
A period photograph in the exhibit shows Reaugh seated with his easel, an umbrella shading him from the strong Texas sun.
With more than 300 items on display, the multipart exhibit, organized by Ransom Center curator Peter Mears, makes one point clear: Reaugh was singularly devoted to capturing the vast Southwestern landscape and its native Longhorn cattle during the heyday of cattle drives.
Impetus for the exhibit started a few years ago with the digitization of the 217 Reaugh artworks in the Ransom Center’s collection, which are now accessible online.
And the show is accompanied by the recent publication by the University of Texas Press of “Windows on the West: The Art of Frank Reaugh,” with essays by several scholars and critics.
In 1937, Reaugh (pronounced “Ray”) donated a portion of his private collection to UT.
At the time, the aging artist was concerned about his legacy. Over the course of his lengthy and prolific career, Reaugh resolutely stood his ground, aesthetically eschewing the radical changes modernist impulses brought to the art world during the course of lifetime. He insisted on painting en plein air (“in the open air”), and by the mid-1930s, his impressionistic style had fallen out of favor.
“A sketch from nature should be a truthful record of things seen, and free from anything else,” Reaugh once wrote. “It should be a study of a definite time and place and a reliable work of reference.”
Depositing some of his work at Texas’ flagship university, he hoped, would ensure its study.
Born in Illinois, Reaugh arrived in Texas by covered wagon with his family at age 15 in 1876. Within a few years, with Texas’ cattle business at its peak, he found a way to ride along on cattle drives and roundups, likely sketching from the saddle.
Reaugh’s aspirational mother encouraged her son’s interest in art, and though he studied the black-and-white reproductions of paintings in popular magazines, he wouldn’t see his first paintings in color until a 1881 trip to New York.
By 1888 — acutely aware that European training was paramount for his credentials as an artist — Reaugh managed to fund a sojourn to Paris to study painting at the Académie Julian. By 1890, he was back in Texas, settled in Oak Cliff near Dallas, where he would remain the rest of his life.
Nature was his studio, and Reaugh pitched his easel wherever he pleased, making postcard-size pastel sketches. Even when he scaled up to make a finished picture, Reaugh favored modest paintings, not the humongous canvases favored by many American landscape artists of the late 19th century. And Reaugh frequently favored ordinary views and landscapes, not necessarily majestic scenes.
Reaugh was particularly adept at rendering the sky at all hours of the night and day, capturing nuances of clouds and atmospheric conditions, sunsets and streaking meteors.
For much of his five-decade career, Reaugh traveled Texas and the Southwest on sketch trips with students and artist peers. An interactive map in the exhibit allows visitors to connect specific locations with specific paintings.
After tracing in impressive detail Reaugh’s artistic life, the Ransom Center exhibit concludes with Reaugh’s magnum opus — the seven painting series “Twenty-four Hours with the Herd.” Reaugh conceived of the series as the centerpiece of a multidisciplinary performance with music and text accompanying the dramatic reveal of the panoramic pictures of a day of life on the cattle trail.
David Guion — composer of the song “Home on the Range” — provided the score. (And in quirky fashion, Guion’s handwritten score for “Home on the Range,” which the Ransom Center just happens to have in its collection, is included in the exhibit.)
The dramatic performance premiered in Dallas in 1933, and it rebooted interest in Reaugh’s work in the final decade of his life and as he was searching for an institution at which to place his collection.
Reaugh brought the performance to Austin in 1937, staging it in the UT Student Union Building, about the same time he donated his cache of paintings to the university.
Ransom Center officials are considering presenting a performance of “Twenty-four Hours with the Herd” sometime during the course of the current exhibit. Though details are yet to be finalized, it’d be a fitting capstone to this already Texas-size tribute of Reaugh.