Robert Onderdonk was one of the first East Coast trained artists to take up residence in South Texas and capture the land and its people with a more practiced hand. He studied at St. James’s College and then in New York at the National Academy of Design. After the Academy’s closing, Robert joined the Art Student’s League, which was formed by his fellow students. While in New York, he studied with William Merritt Chase, James Caroll Beckwith, Walter Shirlaw and Alexander Helwig Wyant.
In 1879, he traveled to Texas as a portraitist in hopes of financing a trip to Europe so that he might further his art studies. In 1881, Robert married Emily Rogers Gould of San Antonio and settled in Texas. At that time Texas art circles were small with few classically trained artists among them. Robert founded an art school and began teaching as well as assisting in the formation of the Van Dyke Art Club in 1886, which later became the San Antonio Art League.
His involvement with the Dallas State Fair brought him to Dallas and in 1893 he became an instructor with the Dallas Art Student’s League. Three years later he brought his family back to San Antonio. In 1899, he briefly left his family to seek employment designing and painting china tiles in St. Louis, but later that year he returned to San Antonio permanently with a job secured with the Dallas State Fair as judge and officer on the selection committee for the annual art exhibitions. Robert was involved with a number of arts organizations, including The Brass Mug Club, the Fifty-Two Club and the Chili-Thirteen.
Robert Jenkins Onderdonk left a body of work, largely comprised of genre scenes and landscapes that depict San Antonio and South Texas at the close of the 19th century through the early 20th century. His impressions represent both those of a visitor intrigued by the novelty and charm of his new surroundings and those of a native, uniquely able to portray truth and relevance in each image. His legacy reaches beyond the beautiful paintings and drawings of his adopted land, to the growth of art education and appreciation throughout the state.