Frank Reaugh

LR-Frank Reaugh 1939
Frank Reaugh 1939
Photo taken by Lucretia Donnell
while Mr. Reaugh was dictating his
Autobiography to her at El Sibil.

Frank Reaugh’s Place in Southwestern Art

by Elizabeth Skidmore Sasser

In 1853 Frederick Law Olmsted (later to become the superintendent of Central Park in New York City) toured Texas with his brother, two horses and a mule named Mr. Brown. Staying near Seguin, he described the “quick flush of spring” as turning “burnt prairies to a vivid green, like that of young wheat. . .  The beauty of the spring prairies,” he added, “has never been and never will be expressed. It is inexpressibe.”

Little did Olmsted know that seven years after his experience in Texas, Charles Franklin Reaugh would be born, destined to poetically describe in oils and pastels what the park designer presumed to be “inexpressible.”

Young Reaugh, whose Irish family shortened the more difficult Castelreaugh to the last syllable (pronounced ray), spent the first fifteen years of his life in Illinois. Lured by lands west, in 1876, Frank and his parents bundled their possessions into a covered wagon and set out to build a new life in Texas. Reaugh’s remembrances of these early years in Texas were recorded nine years before his death in 1945, and later published in F. Reaugh (Dallas, 1962) by Alice B. Stroud and Modena Stroud Dailey. The “illimitable distance” and “skies that were beautiful, grand or awe-inspiring” are the images he recalled of the small farm near Terrell, Texas, where the family settled.

Surrounded by open range, the family’s fence was the only man-made line as far as the eye could see. On the “free grass” that was Reaugh’s backyard, longhorn steers grazed and fattened for market. “I had a liking for drawing in which I was encouraged by my mother,” wrote Reaugh who, armed with his book of cattle and sheep anatomy, would sit in the midst of the 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.”

Reaugh did much of his early subject research quite literally in the field. “No animal on earth,” he said, “has the beauty of the Texas steer.” His initial education in aesthetics, however, would be garnered through books that contained engravings and reproductions by European landscapists and illustrations by animal artists. Among the animal artists whom he admired, Reaugh would cite Englishman Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, American illustrator Frederick Stuart Church, French painter Rosa Bonheur and Dutchman Paulus Potter. Landscapists who appealed to him included some of the early naturalists like Frenchman Camille Corot and English watercolorist J.M.W. Turner.

Combining that knowledge with participation in roundups with the cowhands who worked for Frank and Romie Houston, two brothers who ran herds of thousands throughout Texas and the Indian Territory, Reaugh was a true “cowboy artist” whose interest was less in the human side of the venture than in the animals and their environment. In this respect, Reaugh saw himself as opposite Frederic Remington and Charlie Russell, whose West was dominated by confrontation; rather, Reaugh saw pastoral harmony in the meandering herds that strung endlessly across the prairie.

Reaugh’s art was foremost in his mind throughout his teenage years and during his few years teaching school. In 1884, at the age of 24, he pulled together his savings and set out to study formally at the School of Fine Arts in St. Louis, Missouri. Little is known of his winter there. He returned to his family carrying a banjo that was rumored to have been purchased in a pawn shop and which, thereafter, hung on the wall of his studio. Whether he had succumbed to ragtime or learned to play a few notes of the “blues” is not mentioned, but it is reported that Reaugh liked to sing and accompany himself on the mandolin.

Back in Texas, Reaugh resumed his habits of sketching and painting in the outdoors. He managed to sell his art, and the monies he saved up helped fund his trip to Paris during the winter of 1888-1889 for classes at the Julien School of Art under Lucien Doucet and Benjamin Constant. Reaugh visited the Paris Exposition of 1889. Was his curiosity perhaps piqued by the Eiffel Tower? Did he visit the Pavilion de l’Art Nouveau? Was he aware of the then well-established Impressionists who exhibited at the Palais des Beaux-Arts? Although there is no evidence, it might be guessed that the heady atmosphere of ferment and change was more than this reclusive Texan could handle. He wrote that of all the work he encountered abroad he was most impressed by the landscapes of now-nearly-forgotten Dutch sentimentalist Anton Mauve, whose paintings he saw that spring in Holland. And with that he bid farewell to Europe forever.

Returning to rural Texas, apparently clearer than ever about his own visual pursuits, he later explained:

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.

That charm is perpetuated in Reaugh’s drawings done in a lively shorthand of rumps and dangling tails, heads crowned by graceful crescents or detached bovine eyes. These details find their way into large motley colored herds standing knee-deep in a watering hole or moving slowly like a stream of “bobbing horns and lashing tails” along a dusty path. For Reaugh each longhorn was an individual. One impression shows the head of a steer conveyed with the elegance Holbein might have given a court gentleman. Another shows a whiteface, with unruly locks hiding its eyes. Inscribed across the bottom corner of the paper is “Paderewsky,” in honor of the disheveled appearance of the Polish pianist.

Reaugh’s sly humor crept in where least expected. In a black-and-white sketch of an evening landscape, an unfortunate and very real moth was impaled on the full moon. The mind can only instinctively think “accident after the fact,” until the mythic sensibility points to endless moths in emblem books and in reality attracted to the light or drawn to their death in the flames of lamps and candles. In Reaugh’s painting, the question becomes, which came first, the moth or the moon?

Reaugh occasionally painted cowboys riding lazily over a hillock or caught in the thick of a roundup. Even in the midst of the herd, however, the cowhands seldom encroach upon the territoriality of the cattle, epitomized by Reaugh’s oft-painted white steer. The symbolic splendor that legend has attached to the white horse--standard transport of royalty and embattled generals--Reaugh reached the height of his poetic expression. In Approaching Herd a white bull stands guard over a passive herd confronting the viewer with an eye-to-eye encounter. The impersonal stare of the bull is disquieting. The private domain in which Reaugh pastured the cattle allows no room for human intrusion; there is an invitation to observe, but a step farther would be to trespass.

In 1890, as barbed wire brought an end to the open range, the Reaughs moved from their farm to Dallas. The artist’s father--who had mined gold in California, farmed and done carpentry work and frame-making for his son--built Frank a studio at the back of the new home. Christened “Ironshed,” or “Old Ironsides,” it became a magnet for visitors who wished to look at his “pictures.”

For two decades after his return from Paris, Reaugh sent paintings annually to exhibitions at the Chicago Art Institute and to the Pennsylvania and National Academies of Art. He continued to exhibit for many years at the Texas State Fair. Although Reaugh was far from unknown, his most appreciative friends and patrons were those who had studied in his famous art classes. Held in the Ironshed, the classes were attended by young Dallas girls between the ages of nine and fifteen. Each student had to be recommended by both her art teacher at school and a sponsor, with the expectation of seriousness of purpose and attendance.

Reaugh taught more than art, however. On nature walks, he would inform his charges of the names of birds, trees and flowers, as well as the planets and constellations. His goal, he said, was “to teach observation and to teach young people…to recognize beauty in their immediate surroundings and to…analyze the reasons for such beauty.” This was for Reaugh the real task facing teachers of young art students. In a document in the Frank Reaugh collection at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas, Reaugh addressed his patrons:

The study of art opens up a great realm of enjoyment--pure, intense, enduring and utterly free from the sensual… It leads to far greater pleasure in the study of nature… Study art, not to do, but to know, then it may be that what you do will be worthwhile… Art should be taught with the view of training both the vision and the mind, and especially the mind. It should be as important a part of learning as mathematics.

Reaugh’s classes helped activate his summer sketching trips into the byways of West Texas and New Mexico. Alice Stroud and Modena Dailey, who knew Reaugh, described the tour leader as “six feet tall, a lithe erect young fellow, with a springy brown beard and brown hair,” who was a confirmed bachelor. Small wonder that these forays were popular with a contingent of ladies, joined by a few young men, all of whom endured a month of relentless travel along the back roads and trails of the Panhandle without complaint and presumably in a state of robust health. Dailey and Stroud reported that “the trips were rough on everybody but Mr. Reaugh, who…liked to sleep under the stars far away on the western prairies, far from man and his civilization.”

By 1920, Reaugh drafted into service a Ford touring car which he called The Cicada. In this little monograph is an account of that first tour of the Cicada by one of his students, Virginia Goerner, age fourteen. Each pupil was allowed 30 pounds of equipment, which included clothing, a bed roll and art supplies. Pitching camp and cooking was a shared experience. A door at the rear of the Cicada was let down to form a work table. It disclosed a 30-gallon water tank and storage for pots, pans, a fireless cooker and food. One of the few students brave enough to complain about the menu referred to “beans and prunes, prunes and beans, interspersed now and then with chili-mush.” To make matters worse, coffee was not permitted, only Postum. For sketching outdoors, Reaugh carried a folding lap easel which he designed and patented. He also made his own pastels, crayons molded in a hexagonal shape for ease of handling and boxing compactly. With each set of colors, Reaugh included a treatise explaining that the pigments were tested for a year in direct sunlight before mixed with distilled water and compressed. Testing was also carried out to assure uniform consistency and hardness which allowed sharpening for use in details. For Reaugh speed was an essential for interpreting the changing light in a landscape and he extolled the suitability of pastels for outdoor work by noting that no other medium could so effectively catch “the feeling of air in a landscape.” Furthermore, he explained:

A sketch from nature should be a truthful record of things seen, and 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.

As might be imagined, Reaugh was responsible for selecting the perfect vantage points for himself and his students. A prosaic patch of weeds seen through the artist’s eye became memorable and he’d slip through barbed wire--which he despised “with the intensity of a true cowboy”--to find the right spot.

Frank Reaugh died in 1945; his 60-year-long career documenting the Texas longhorn and landscape resulted in thousands of works ranging from 2-by-3 sketches to his major accomplishment called Twenty-Four Hours with the Herd, a series of seven large paintings, created after he was 70 years old and now in the collection of the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Today, these works are being “rediscovered” at a time when untouched nature is harder to find. As the empty spaces of the West disappear, Reaugh’s imagery opens small windows to unpolluted pale blue skies that shade to butter yellow, to horizons defined by violet hills, to soft green bands of grass that flow into foregrounds framed by misty trees as soft as gauze.

In Frank Reaugh’s will, filed in Dallas County, May 16, 1940, the painter noted, “The main part of my property is in pictures… These are largely of the great prairies of Texas and the longhorned cattle of fifty years ago, it is my intention to present this collection to the Southwest… 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.”

In accordance with Reaugh’s wishes, his trustees presented 500 paintings to the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon and more than 200 to the Texas Tech University Library, the Southwest Collection, in Lubbock. The Board of Regents of the University of Texas began negotiations to obtain some of Reaugh’s work as early as 1937. Paintings were given to the University in Austin over a period of years.

The “inexpressible spring” which touched Olmsted with its magic is preserved for future generations by Frank Reaugh, just as the memory of the infinite vastness of the prairies before man came with his fences and tractors is Reaugh’s gift to the history of the American West.

Portions of this essay originally appeared in Southwest Art, July 1988, titled “Frank  Reaugh: Love Song to a Longhorn”. This article is also printed in substantially the same form, as the introduction to Frank Reaugh’s autobiography, From Under a Mesquite Tree.

Dr. Sasser was Professor of Architecture, Emeritus at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, where she taught from 1949 to 1990. She was author of Dugout to Deco: Building in West Texas, 1880–1930. (Texas Tech University Press, 1993); Out of the Ordinary: The Art of Paul Milosevich (Texas Tech, 1991), and the author of many other books and articles. Betsy passed away July 24, 2005. We offer this essay as a tribute to her life, and her love of the art of Frank Reaugh. It was an honor and a privilege to have known her. She enriched the lives of everyone who knew her.