Springtime in Texas by Porfirio Salinas

Porfirio Salinas


by Jeffrey Morseburg

From the years of the Great Depression through President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society of the 1960s, Texan Porfirio Salinas (1910-1973) remained one of the state’s most popular artists. Today, his works remain popular with Texas collectors and those who love landscapes of the beautiful “Hill Country” of central Texas. One of the first Mexican-American painters to become widely recognized for his art, Salinas was a favorite of President Lyndon Johnson and first lady Lady Bird Johnson, as well as of Sam Rayburn, the longest-serving Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Texas Governor John Connely. In fact, President Johnson was so enamored with his Salinas paintings that the artist will forever be associated with our first Texas-born President. Works by Porfirio Salinas are in a number of museum collections, grace the halls of the Texas State Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion in Austin, and are included in virtually every major private collection of Early Texas Art.

Porfirio Salinas was born on November 6, 1910 near the small town of Bastrop, Texas, about thirty miles from Austin. His father, Porfirio G. Salinas (1881-1967), and his mother, Clara G. Chavez, struggled to make a hard-scrabble living as tenant farmers, but eventually were forced to give it up. The family moved to San Antonio, where Salinas’ father was able to get a job working as a laborer for the railroad, but the scenic area around Bastrop, with its pine trees and the wide expanse of the Rio Grande River, would forever remain a touchstone for the artist. For the rest of his life, Salinas and his brothers went back frequently to visit their grandmother in her little farmhouse. When in Bastrop, Porfirio painted on the banks of the Rio Grande or in the groves of pine trees. The Salinas family was close-knit and Porfirio was the middle child of five children, so he had an older brother and sister and a younger brother and sister. His mother was a native of Mexico, so throughout his childhood the family made the long drive to the border crossing at Laredo to visit Clara’s close-knit family.

As a child growing up in the bi-lingual section of San Antonio, Salinas drew and painted incessantly and by the time he was ten, he was already producing work that he sold to his schoolteachers. He was described as a “boy whose textbooks were seldom opened and whose sketchbook was never closed.” The young artist spent his spare time watching artists paint in and around San Antonio. As an aspiring painter, Salinas was fortunate to grow up in the historic city, which had the most active art scene in Texas, and it was his exposure to older, professional painters that encouraged him to leave school early in order to help his family and pursue a career as a professional artist, despite his father’s inability to see art as a possible career for his son.

Hill Country by Porfirio Salinas

About the time he was fifteen, Salinas, who was then employed in an art supply store, began to work as an assistant to the English-born painter Robert W. Wood (1889-1979), who had settled in San Antonio in 1924. Although Wood was already an established professional artist, he did not have a great deal of formal art training and was then studying with the academically trained Spanish painter Jose Arpa (1858-1952) in order to augment his knowledge and give his work a more polished look. Salinas was an eager young man, and while working in Wood’s downtown San Antonio studio he learned to stretch canvases, frame paintings and sketch in larger compositions from small plein-air studies for the older artist. He began to accompany Wood and Arpa to the hills outside San Antonio, where they painted small studies of fields of blue lupin – the state flower, the famous “Bluebonnets” of Texas – in the springtime and scenes of the gnarled Red Oaks as they changed color in the fall. He was soon assisting Wood in the tedious work of painting the tiny blue flowers that collectors wanted to see in the landscapes they purchased of central Texas. According to a 1972 newspaper story, “Legend has it that one day in the 1920s artist Robert Wood decided he could not bear to paint another bluebonnet in one of his landscapes. He hired young Porfirio Salinas to paint them in for him at five dollars a painting.” Whether this story is accurate or apocryphal isn’t clear, but the ambitious and independent young Salinas wasn’t destined to be anyone’s assistant for very long.

The formative event of Porfirio Salinas’ teenage years was the Texas Wildflower Competitive Exhibitions, the Roaring-Twenties dream of the eccentric oilman Edgar B. Davis (1873-1951). These competitive shows of paintings of wildflowers and Texas life were mounted in San Antonio from 1927 to 1929. Held at the newly opened Witte Museum each spring, the exhibition featured large cash prizes donated by Davis, which were an inducement for artists to travel from all over the United States to paint in the Hill Country of Texas. The “Davis Competions,” as they were known, helped to cement San Antonio’s reputation as an art center, a legacy that remains with the “river city” today. The shows generated a great deal of excitement in the area, helping to make celebrities of the some of the artists who had already settled there and encouraging others to make San Antonio their home. Over the three years that the wildflower competitions were held, more than 300 paintings were exhibited, and thousands of viewers saw the paintings at the Witte Museum and on tours throughout the state and in New York. Each year Davis would generously purchase the winning paintings and then donate them to the San Antonio Art League. Young Porfirio Salinas would have been able to not only watch his two mentors – Robert W. Wood and Jose Arpa – paint the works that they entered in the Davis Competitions, he would have been able to see Arpa take several of the major prizes, receiving the judge’s accolades for “Verbena,” “Cactus Flower” and “Picking Cotton,” works that are still on view at the San Antonio Art League Museum today. Unfortunately, eventually Davis put his money to work elsewhere, bringing to an end the wildflower events, but only after they inspired Salinas and other aspiring painters and had helped to make wildflower paintings the most sought-after subject for traditionalist Texas collectors

In 1930, when he was only twenty, Salinas hung out a shingle and began to paint professionally, augmenting the sales of his easel paintings with what little business he could garner by painting signs for local concerns. It was a struggle for the young artist to make a living, as the effects of the Great Depression were settling in. His early works are very similar to those of Robert Wood’s, both in subject matter and treatment. Salinas did small paintings of Bluebonnets for the tourists who visited San Antonio to see the famous Alamo as well as paintings of the Texas missions. While some of his early works have a soft, tonalist quality, with subtle gradations of sunset colors, most were painted in a style that fits well within the currents of the late American Impressionist style, with solid drawing and a warm, chromatic palette. Like Robert Wood’s works of the 1930s, the paintings Salinas produced as a young man were usually well composed and detailed views of the spring wildflowers in full bloom in the Texas countryside. In contrast to Wood’s work, however, early Salinas compositions were usually pure landscapes without the pioneer farms or dilapidated fences that Wood often used to add visual interest to his wildflower scenes, and he also painted scenes of San Antonio itself as his mentor Jose Arpa had done.

Hill Country Bluebonnets by Porfiro Salinas

In 1939 Salinas began working with Dewey Bradford (1896-1985), one of the great characters of Texas art. Bradford was a second-generation dealer whose family operated the Bradford Paint Company in Austin, where they sold art supplies, framed artwork, restored paintings and hung artist’s work. Salinas was struggling when he met Bradford, but the older man took the young artist under his wing and began to sell his work reliably, even though the prices that people would pay for a painting were still low due to the lingering effects of the Great Depression. Bradford was a born salesman with a gift for storytelling, and truth be told, a bit of embroidery. The relationship between Bradford and Salinas was often rocky, but it was to last the rest of the artist’s life and give him a modest sense of loyalty and security, things which are all too rare in the art world. While Bradford could be critical of his work, Salinas knew that he had a dealer who encouraged him, believed in him and was not shy about singing his praises to anyone who entered Bradford’s store on Guadalupe Street.

During the early years of World War II Salinas met a pretty Mexican woman from Guadalajara named Maria Bonillas, who was working as a secretary for the Mexican National Railways office in San Antonio. Walking downtown with a painting of a bullfighter under his arm prompted a conversation with the young woman, and things progressed rapidly. The couple were married on February 15, 1942 and settled into life in San Antonio, eventually purchasing a tidy stone home on Buena Vista street that had a detached studio in back. By the time the United States entered World War II, Salinas was starting to make a decent living selling his art and beginning to garner recognition across Texas. However, in 1943, like millions of other young men, he was drafted into the service of his country. Fortunately, as an older Army draftee with special talents, after his training he was assigned to Fort Sam Houston, right in San Antonio, allowing him to remain at home while still completing his obligation to Uncle Sam. Because of his artistic abilities, Salinas was asked to do paintings for the Army as well as a mural for the Officer’s Club, which has been recovered in recent years. In his spare time he kept working on landscapes and when the war ended in 1945, he was not faced with the same rocky transition from military to civilian life as many veterans. That same year, Salinas became a father as he and Maria celebrated the birth of his only child, Christina Maria Salinas.

Like most landscape artists of the era, Salinas was an avid plein-air painter, and he took his easel and paint box with him on trips throughout Texas and into Mexico. He and his wife traveled deep into her native country, where the artist painted the majestic volcanic peaks of Iztaccihuatl (known as the “Sleeping Woman” because of its unique shape) and Popocatepetl (called the “smoking mountain” because the volcano is still active), south of Mexico City. Salinas also painted studies of rustic villages and their residents. While his most popular paintings were always the scenes of the Texas Bluebonnets and other wildflowers that bloom all over the Hill Country in the spring, he also painted scenes of the twisted Texas oak trees of central Texas, the more arid landscapes of the Texas panhandle and West Texas, and the historic Texas missions; he even rapidly executed scenes of bullfights and cockfights for Mexican-American collectors.

By the late 1940s, the American economy was finally growing again and wealthier Texans began to collect Salinas paintings, purchasing them from galleries in San Antonio and Dallas and at Dewey Bradford’s County Store Gallery in Austin. Salinas also sold work to the Atlanta dealer Dr. Carlton Palmer, who represented Robert W. Wood for many years. In 1948 he sold two large Salinas paintings to the Citizen National Bank in Abilene, Texas. Because Austin was the state capitol, Bradford counted many of the state’s elite among his patrons, and due to his interest in history and literature, he played a large role in the cultural history of central Texas. Bradford introduced a number of the major Texas political figures to Salinas’ work, including Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-1973), who was then in the House of Representatives and on his way to winning a controversial election that installed him in the United States Senate. Johnson became an enthusiastic collector, as did his political mentor, the legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn (1882-1961). Johnson decorated his office with Salinas paintings and brought a number of them home to his vast LBJ Ranch, near Johnson City, Texas. In spite of his important patrons, however, Salinas went through a fallow and difficult period in the late 1950s. He had a volatile temperament, which made relationships difficult, and it took great patience for his wife to help him manage his career.

As Salinas entered middle age his work began to sell steadily, but except for tourists who purchased his paintings in San Antonio, he was known primarily only to Texas art collectors. All that changed in 1961 with the election of John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) to the Presidency of the United States and running mate Lyndon Johnson to the Vice Presidency. Johnson was an expansive, larger-than-life character and his status as a long, tall Texan in a cowboy hat was a large part of his imposing political image. During his storied career in the House of Representatives and the United States Senate, Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson (1912-2007) spent their time in Washington in a modest house on the edge of Rock Creek Park, but this home would not do for a Vice President. So, in 1961, the Johnsons purchased a French chateau-styled home in the Spring Valley section of the Capitol. Obtained from the famed socialite and ambassador Perle Mesta (1889-1975), the house came with a fine collection of French furniture and tapestries, and the designer Genevieve Hendricks was hired to meld the French look with objects from the Johnsons’ overseas travels and paintings of the flora and fauna of their native Texas. Featured prominently in the foyer were the paintings of Porfirio Salinas. Because of the Johnsons’ patronage, his work was mentioned in Time Magazine and other national publications. Lady Bird Johnson loved her landscapes of the Texas Hill Country and told reporters that, “I want to see them when ever I open the door, to remind me where I come from.”

After President Kennedy’s death thrust Lyndon Johnson into the Presidency, he brought his Salinas paintings into the historic halls of the White House, adding further to the Texas painter’s reputation. At the time of the President’s assassination, Salinas had completed a scene of a horse drinking titled “Rocky Creek” that was to be presented to Kennedy during his visit to Dallas. Instead, in an effort to memorialize the fallen President, the artist painted a symbolic work of a lone horse depicted against foreboding clouds. During his tenure in the White House, President Johnson also presented a Salinas landscape as a state gift to the President of Mexico, Gustavo Diaz Ordaz (1911-1979). During the 1960s, Salinas paintings sold briskly and, thanks to Presidential patronage, for escalating prices. In an interview with a writer from the New York Times, President Johnson enthused about the work of “his favorite artist” and said that, “his work reminds me of the country around the ranch.” Salinas was invited to the LBJ Ranch frequently during President Johnson’s administration and his paintings were hung throughout the ranch, in the President’s offices and even in the private quarters of the White House. The connection to President Johnson was a great boon to sales of Salinas paintings, and in 1964, when demand was at its height, Texas Governor John Connelly (1917-1993) was told that all Salinas’work was sold and that he would have to wait for a painting.

In 1960, a half century after his birth, Salinas was honored by his home town of Bastrop, a celebration that touched the modest artist. In 1962 Salinas was honored with a solo exhibition at the Witte Museum in San Antonio that featured more than twenty of his works. By the early 1960s, sales of reproductions of the artist’s landscapes by the New York Graphic Society and other publishers also grew rapidly, enlarging his audience throughout the United States. In 1967, Dewey Bradford helped to organize the production of a book of Texas stories titled “Bluebonnets and Cactus” (Austin: Pemberton Press: 1967), which was profusely illustrated with paintings by Salinas. His works were still popular when Salinas died after a brief illness in April of 1973, just a few months after former President Johnson’s passing. He was memorialized in the City of Austin by Porfirio Salinas Day, which honored him for having “done much to bring the culture of Mexico and Texas together with his paintings.” Bastrop, Texas, the city of the artist’s birth, has been holding a Salinas Art Exhibition annually since 1981.

The entire artistic oeuvre of Porfirio Salinas is estimated to be between two and three thousand works in all, with the vast majority being landscapes of Central Texas. He painted hundreds of scenes of the wildflowers, including the various varieties of Blue Lupin, the state flower, as well as other flowering flora. These show the influence of his artistic mentors Robert W. Wood and Jose Arpa Y Perea. Salinas also painted a number of scenes of Prickly Pear Cactus that show the influence of the English painter Dawson Dawson-Watson (1864-1939), who painted many such works during his tenure in Texas. He painted the more arid Texas landscape infrequently and these works are very rare today and sought after by collectors from the Texas Panhandle and the El Paso area. Salinas also painted many river landscapes along the Guadalupe, Rio Frio, the San Antonio River and the Rio Grande. On trips to his wife’s homeland of Mexico, he painted a number of scenes of the volcanic peaks as well as scenes of peasant villages and villagers. Figurative paintings are rare among Salinas’ works and these scenes of bull fights, fandangos and cock fights are probably the least sought after of his paintings. There are also a small number of modest marines, painted on trips to the Texas and California coast. Salinas paintings are highly prized by collectors of early Texas art, with the paintings of wildflowers in greatest demand.

Works by Porfirio Salinas can be found in a number of public collections, including the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum; the Texas State Capitol; the Texas Governor’s Mansion; the Lyndon Baines Johnson Ranch; the Sam Rayburn Library and Museum in Bonham, Texas; Amarillo High School; the Witte Musuem in San Antonio; the historic Joan and Price Daniel House in San Antonio; the Stark Museum in Orange, Texas; the R.W. Norton Art Gallery in Shreveport, Louisiana; the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo, Colorado; Texas A & M University and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Salinas has been featured in a number of reference works and anthologies devoted to American Western Art and has been the subject of a modest biography by Ruth Goddard (Portfirio Salinas, Rock House Press: 1975) that was based on interviews with the artist. Copyright 2010, Jeffrey Morseburg, not to be reproduced without specific written permission.

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