The collection of American art in the San Antonio Museum of Art is, in fact, older than the institution itself. The core of the collection was formed by the Museum's parent organization, The San Antonio Museum Association, which had founded the Witte Memorial Museum in San Antonio in 1926. By the 1960s, the Witte Museum had become a multipurpose museum with collections and exhibitions that dealt extensively with natural history, history, anthropology, and the visual arts. In the early 1970s, the Director and Trustees of the San Antonio Museum Association decided that the abandoned and largely derelict complex of industrial buildings built between 1884 and 1904 for the original Lone Star Brewing Company could be renovated and refurbished for use as an art museum. The resulting space would then serve as an exciting venue to display the Association's art collection and free up the Witte Museum building for more specialized use as a museum of science and history.
Money was raised for the project, the architectural firm of Cambridge Seven Architects was selected to oversee it, the former industrial site was entered into the National Register of Historic Places, and the new Museum opened its doors to the public on March 1, 1981. For the next thirteen years following that opening, the San Antonio Museum of Art operated as a part of the San Antonio Museum Association. Then, in 1994, the Association was dissolved and the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Witte Museum became independent organizations.
The first works of American art to enter the permanent collection of the San Antonio Museum of Art, then, were those acquired by the San Antonio Museum Association for display within the context of the Witte Memorial Museum. An early noteworthy work was a painting by Thomas Hill, a West Coast artist who specialized in painting such California sites as Yosemite. His The Redwoods of 1898 (Cat. No. 43) was a gift to the Witte Museum's second Curator of Art, Eleanor Onderdonk (an important Texas regional artist in her own right, see Cat. No. 60) by her friend, Dorothea Bloecker (who had recently inherited the painting) in 1935. Onderdonk made purchases of American art, such as the two bronze sculptures by Bessie Potter Vonnoh, Maidenhood and The Dancer (Cat. Nos. 50, 51) in the 1930s and 1940s, but the next major boost that the collection received was from San Antonio art collectors and patrons, Dr. Frederic G. and Mrs. (Lucille J.) Oppenheimer.
In all, the Oppenheimers made five gifts of American paintings to the collection. The first two, both made in 1945, consisted of seven paintings and included portraits by William Dunlap, James Peale, Samuel Lovett Waldo, and Ezra Ames (Cat. Nos. 4a, 8, 11, 71) and landscapes by Thomas Doughty and Jasper Cropsey (Cat. Nos. 19, 22). Some of these works were unveiled on February 6, 1945, at an exhibition of early American art held at the Witte Museum. The paintings were shown with examples of early American furniture "on loan from San Antonio homes."
The three subsequent Oppenheimer gifts, consisting of thirteen works, included portraits by Jeremiah Theus, Ralph Earl, Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, Rembrandt Peale, Henry Inman, and Asher B. Durand (Cat. Nos. 1, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 14). Also included was a striking landscape by Thomas Worthington Whittredge, The Rocky Mountains of 1875, and an intimate and touching pastel by William Merritt Chase of his wife and daughter, Mrs. Chase and Child (or, I'm Going to See Grandma) of about 1889 (Cat. Nos. 26, 38).
A final Oppenheimer gift came to the collection posthumously by an exchange with the San Antonio Art League. This work is Thomas Sully's magisterial portrait of his wife, Sarah Sully and Her Dog, Ponto (Cat. No. 13). The portrait, painted when both Sully and his wife were of advanced years, was made specifically for their daughter Blanche. It shows a wistfully pensive Sarah Sully seated by a table decked with a fashionable black neoclassical urn containing an arrangement of brightly hued flowers. Her favorite dog, Ponto, waits patiently at her side, intent upon the pieces of bread divided between her hands and her lap. The pairing was intentional, as Mrs. Sully was devoted to animals and reportedly became quite distraught when informed of any neighbor having mistreated a pet or a work animal. Thomas Sully was indeed proud of the portrait, which he completed when he was sixty-five, and he discussed the preparation of the canvas at some length in a book that appeared posthumously, Hints to Young Painters and the Process of Portrait Painting as Practiced by the Late Thomas Sully, published in Philadelphia in 1873.4
After these important gifts of the 1940s and 1950s, the 1960s saw little of significance added to San Antonio's American art collection. With the acquisition of the old Lone Star Brewery in the early 1970s, however, and with the concentrated efforts to transform this former industrial space into a vibrant new art museum, the situation changed. Since the original plan was for the San Antonio Museum of Art to be a museum primarily dedicated to the art of the New World, with a special emphasis on the art of the United States from Colonial times to the present (reflecting the strengths of the overall collection at that time), an intensified drive seems to have been made to enhance the scope of the collection. As might be expected, certain of the organization's Trustees played a key role in obtaining funds for the acquisitions. For example, Trustee Elizabeth Coates, through the Elizabeth and George Coates Fund, provided the means necessary to acquire three masterworks of American painting. These were: Alfred Bricher's Low Tide, Hetherington's Cove, Grand Manan; Robert Henri's El Tango; and Ernest Lawson's High Bridge, Harlem River (Cat. Nos. 27, 52, 59). The Henri is an especially appropriate work for San Antonio, with its notable Spanish theme and lively execution. It was painted by Henri during a trip to Spain in 1908. His model was the celebrated Spanish dancer Manoleta Mareques, who posed in a jaunty hat and brightly colored shawl. Her pose is indeed a provocative one that both beckons and challenges the viewer. It comes as no surprise, then, that the artist also considered the alternate titles of Come Here! and Begin the Dance! before settling on El Tango for the work.
Two other Trustees who helped increase San Antonio's American holdings at this time were Nancy B. Negley and Gilbert M. Denman, Jr. The two joined in presenting the collection with an important painting by Texas regional artist Robert Julian Onderdonk that was executed while he was studying art in New York City, East Loyal Field, New York (Cat. No. 86). Ms. Negley further helped to acquire the trompe l'oeil painting Sportsman's Trophy by Alexander Pope (Cat. No. 44) with funds provided by The Brown Foundation of Houston.
Mr. Denman was particularly helpful with the acquisition of several American works, including Joseph Blackburn's Portrait of Anne Saltonstall (1762), John Singleton Copley's Portrait of a Man in a Blue Coat (1770), and Edward Hicks' Peaceable Kingdom with Quakers Carrying Banners (1830-1835; Cat. Nos. 2, 3, 18), each purchased with funds provided by the Ewing Halsell Foundation of San Antonio. The Copley, painted while the artist still lived in America, is an especially refined example of the artist's work. It has been suggested that the sitter may have been a member of Copley's family or even represent the artist himself. In this light, it is interesting to compare the work with a miniature self-portrait now in the Yale University Art Gallery.' In addition to these three works, Mr. Denman also assisted with the acquisition of Benjamin West's unfinished, but superb, Noah Sacrificing after the Deluge (Cat. No. 6), a work purchased with funds provided by the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation of Houston.
Significant growth continued during the 1980s, spurred on by generous funding from two additional Texas foundations. To assist the newly opened San Antonio Museum of Art increase its collection of significant works, the Cullen Foundation of Houston established the Lillie and Roy Cullen Endowment Fund at the Museum. One of the first uses of the fund was in 1984 to purchase John Singer Sargent's Portrait of Mrs. Elliot Fitch Shepard (Cat. No. 37). This magisterial female portrait, painted by Sargent in 1888, displays the artist's interest in largely monochromatic compositions, in this case a striking red-on-red that is also to be found in an earlier male portrait, also full-length, Dr. Pozzi at Home, painted in 1881. One wonders if Sargent's possible interest in a female red-on-red, full-length portrait might have been behind his choice of Mrs. Shepard's gown color.
Thanks to the generosity of the Robert J. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation, three more important American paintings came to the San Antonio Museum of Art in the 1980s. Martin Johnson Heade's atmospheric Passion Flowers with Three Hummingbirds entered the collection in 1982, followed by Albert Bierstadt's Passing Storm over the Sierra Nevadas in 1985, and Winslow Homer's graceful watercolor Boy Fishing in 1986 (Cat. Nos. 29, 24, and 41).
The last-named work, Homer's lyrical Boy Fishing, has recently been accorded significant attention, from inclusion in recent scholarly works and exhibition catalogues to a request to display a copy of the painting in a popular television series. Homer was himself a passionate fisherman, and he joined the North Woods Club, a private hunting and fishing preserve on Mink Pond near Minerva, New York in 1886 to indulge that passion. In his Boy Fishing, he effectively captures both the stillness of the mountain lake and the thrill of the catch. He has, at once, recorded a serene, yet exciting, moment.
During the 1990s, the San Antonio Museum of Art's American collection continued to expand, this time to fill in areas previously lacking or underrepresented in the collection. One such area was still-life painting, and the Museum was fortunate to add two fine examples, Severin Roesen's Still Life with Fruit and Sliced Lemon in 1991 and Charles Ethan Porter's Still Life in 1996 (Cat. Nos. 28, 30). The acquisition of the Porter not only helped increase the scope of San Antonio's still-life paintings, it also reflected the Museum's interest in collecting the work of African-American artists. Once again the interest and passion of the Museum's Trustees benefited the institution. Trustee Harriet Kelley and her husband, Dr. Harmon Kelley, are significant collectors of African-American art. With their help and guidance, the Museum added several important African-American works to the collection, including Edward Mitchell Bannister's oil painting After the Bath (Cat. No. 40, the gift of Dr. Harmon and Harriet Kelley in 1994), Jacob Lawrence's casein on paper Bar `n Grill (Cat. No. 66, the gift of Mr. and Mrs. Hugh Halff, Dr. and Mrs. Harmon Kelley, and Dr. Leo Edwards in 1995), and Richmond Barthé's bronze sculpture Birth of the Spirituals (Cat. No. 69, purchased with funds provided by the Lillie and Roy Cullen Endowment Fund in 1996).
As the San Antonio Museum of Art moves into the new millennium, it also is moving to share its American art holdings with a larger and wider audience. Thanks to the generous grant received from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Museum is publishing, herewith, the first catalogue of its American art collection. Many of its works have been featured recently in a wide range of exhibitions organized by other prominent American museums that have such diverse themes as the career of Winslow Homer as both artist and sport-fisherman and a celebration of important American art in Texas collections." Finally, as this catalogue goes to press, the San Antonio Museum of Art is represented in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. At the request of President George W Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, the San Antonio Museum of Art has lent its Robert Julian Onderdonk painting Near San Antonio (Cat. No. 54) to the White House so that the President and First Lady may be reminded of the beauty and grandeur of the Texas landscape.
G. D. S., III