A National Image: The American Painting And Sculpture Collection in the San Antonio Museum of Art

by Lisa Reitzes, Stephanie Street, and Gerry D.Scott, III with the assistance of Shelby Wells




by Gerry D. Scott, III


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.[1] 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.[2] 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."[3]

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.


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