One Friday in February, I set out on a five-hour drive from Austin through the Piney Woods of far East Texas to a small, nearly forgotten town called San Augustine. I was headed there on a mission (though unrelated to the mission this town is best known for). I was looking for paintings by S. Seymour Thomas, a little-known but remarkably successful artist who happened to be one of the few Texans to study art in Paris in the 1880s and ’90s. My search had brought me to a historic house in Thomas’s hometown, where a collection of his work is now housed.
The Blanton’s special exhibition Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World, organized by the Brooklyn Museum, presents a broad view of the Caribbean basin. Rather than chopping up this region by language or political history, the exhibition juxtaposes images depicting Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Venezuela, St. Thomas, Dominica, the Bahamas, and Cuba, among other Caribbean locales. The basin extends into the Gulf of Mexico and as far west as the Gulf Coast—a region that during the colonial period became commercially and culturally bound both to the Caribbean islands and to the imperial powers across the Atlantic.
Because the exhibition was to debut here in Austin, curators and educators from the Blanton and the Brooklyn Museum hatched a plan to highlight this local connection by seeking out 19th-century artists who had both a Texas connection and transatlantic careers. We first selected two works by Julius Stockfleth, a German-born Galveston painter who depicted that city with naturalistic detail during its heyday. But we were still interested in including an artist from the region who had engaged with French Realism or Impressionism, and thus followed a similar career trajectory to that of Francisco Oller, the focus of the exhibition.
As it turned out, finding artists who fit the bill was no easy task. In the 1860s, when painters in Paris were beginning to break away from the official academy by exploring avant-garde strategies, the newly annexed state of Texas was still being settled—not exactly the ideal atmosphere for a thriving modern art scene. On top of that, I quickly discovered the importance of distinguishing between Impressionists from Texas and participants in “Texas Impressionism.” Impressionism was slow to take off in the United States. In Texas, it was only in the first quarter of the 20th century that artists began to represent the effects of light and atmosphere in a manner that can be described as Impressionist. This regional movement reached its height between 1927 and 1929, when the Texas Wildflower Competitive Exhibitions were established to encourage depictions of the local landscape. This was, however, outside of the chronological range of our project.
I reached repeated dead ends until a colleague in Galveston pointed me to S. Seymour Thomas. The artist fit the bill: After training in Texas and at the Art Students League in New York, in 1888 Thomas set off for Paris, where he enrolled the Académie Julian, an art school popular among American expats. Not only did his time in Paris overlap with Oller’s—indeed they may have both exhibited work at the Paris Salon exhibition of 1895—Thomas’s work from the period demonstrates a clear awareness of Impressionist brushstroke and coloring.
Hence my road trip. In San Augustine I found the two paintings I’d had my eye on: one a street scene from Paris, the other a wintry Texas landscape far removed from the fields of wildflowers that would comprise the bulk of Texas’s regional Impressionism.
While not as luminous or painterly as the works by French masters like Pissarro and Monet that are included in the exhibition, Thomas’s paintings from the 1890s evince his exposure to radical developments in technique and subject matter. And while, like Oller, Thomas never identified as an Impressionist, his career encapsulates the promise that transatlantic travel held for artists of the 19th century.
Beth Shook is the Blanton’s Curatorial Associate for Latin American Art and managing curator for Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World.
Edwards, Katie Robinson. Midcentury Modern Art in Texas. Austin, TX: The University of Texas Press, 2014.
Pinckney, Pauline A. Painting in Texas: The Nineteenth Century. Austin, TX: The University of Texas Press, 1967.
Texas Impressionism: Branding with Brushstroke and Color, 1885-1935. Exh. cat. Canyon, TX: Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, 2012.