Often referred to as the “Dean of Texas Artists,” Frank Reaugh became a pillar in the foundation of Texas art, developing and influencing the art communities in Dallas and Fort Worth as both painter and teacher.
If you have ever seen a Frank Reaugh, you might find it difficult to believe he was not a native Texan. Reaugh arrived in Texas as quickly as he could, and he never left except for a brief hiatus to study art in Saint Louis and Europe. Each Reaugh canvas and pastel seems to be a new verse in his ongoing love song – a hymn of Texas.
Unlike other Southwestern artists such as Frederic Remington and Charles Marion Russell, Reaugh’s fascination with the western ranching manifests not in the figure of the cowboy himself, but on the sights that would have occupied the cattleman’s vision and thoughts from his perch in the saddle. The vast, endless sky. The dry, flat haze of the open range, sometimes lush, sometimes dusty and the herd, always the herd.
Reaugh’s preoccupation with Texas flora and fauna admirably portrays his philosophy that the encroachment of civilization would ultimately eliminate the open range.
His paintings, pastels, and photographs are as much historical record as artwork. Foretelling the demise of the range, Reaugh became a bard, historian and prophet, mourning the loss by commemorating it in his artwork. In later life, Reaugh instinctively understood that his would be a dual contribution to Texas:
“It is my hope that my pictures portraying those times, aside from any artistic merit that they may possess, will tell their story, and will be preserved because of historical value; for the steer and the cowboy have gone, the range has been fenced and plowed, and the beauty of the early days is but a memory.”[i]
Reaugh preferred to work en plein air, even designing a new collapsible easel to facilitate sketching as he accompanied cattle drives. Molding his own pastel crayons, Reaugh captured the West Texas landscape and herds with a practiced yet worshipful eye, believing, “Nature’s church [is] the only one this ultra-modern world has left unspoiled.”[ii]
His pastel “sketches” ranging from roughly 3.5in. x 7in. to 8in. x 12in, capture a moment with the immediacy of a photograph, filtered through the soul of a romantic poet. Of his numerous small and medium-sized pastel “sketches,” only a few were enlarged into sweeping panoramic pastels like his iconic Watering the Herd. More than mere impressions of a moment, these larger works declare with an overwhelming veracity: “I was here, at such a time, at such a place, and this is what I saw.” In the case of Sheepherder’s Camp, Frank Reaugh was in the Texas Brazos Valley, in November of 1892, and witnessed a flock of sheep on the range.
Its whereabouts previously unknown, Reaugh’s own scrupulously kept records allow us to trace its provenance from inception through multiple exhibitions, until it passed into private hands around the turn of the last century. Its rediscovery has both historians and art collectors fairly twitching for a chance at this surprisingly controversial pastel. The concept of shepherding in Texas seems to jar with our longhorn-dominated conception of Western ranching.
The behemoth of a Texan cattleman, Charles Goodnight, a living legend in his own time and the inspiration for the epic Lonesome Dove novels was a shepherd? How often do popular cultural conceptions carry little purchase with the truth? In reality, Texas ranchers like Charles Goodnight were shrewd businessmen, diversifying their investments in numerous ventures when there was a profit to be made, including shepherding.
At 20 x 40 inches, Sheepherder’s Camp is the largest pastel ever to come on the auction market. Apart from its magnificent artistic merit, Reaugh’s dogged devotion to the truth is part of what makes Sheepherder’s Camp such a uniquely desirable work of art. Eminent Reaugh scholar, Michael Grauer of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, concludes that its significance cannot be exaggerated: “This is the last great one. I know of no other.”[iii]
We at Heritage are honored to be part of a new moment in history, wherein Frank Reaugh’s Sheepherder’s Camp comes back into public view for the first time in a century, and across the auction block for the first time ever during our May 16 Texas Art Signature Auction. The winning bidder will take home not only a magnificent work of art by a master at the height of his powers, but a piece of genuine Texas history.
[iii] Lecture for CASETA, April 26, 2015
By Holly Culbreath
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