Texas painter Porfirio Salinas is among the first Mexican American artists to gain national recognition. In 1964 The New York Times described him as “L.B.J.’s Favorite Painter.” The famed bluebonnet painter is also undoubtedly one of the most famous personalities who lived in the Westside barrio of San Antonio, Texas.
Born in Bastrop, Texas in 1910, Salinas moved to San Antonio as a child. He grew up in an era when Texas did poorly in educating Hispanics. In many parts of South Texas, Mexican Americans were required to attend segregated “Mexican schools.” Although Salinas’ education may have been limited to elementary school, he enjoyed drawing and painting from a young age. At age ten, he sold his first paintings to one of his teachers.
At age fifteen, while Salinas was employed at an art supply store near the San Antonio Riverwalk, he met the English-born painter, Robert W. Wood. Wood had a studio in the downtown area and hired Salinas to stretch canvases and frame paintings. Wood was taking art classes from famed Spanish-born artist José Arpa, and likely introduced Salinas to him and other artists with similar interests. Salinas worked as an apprentice to Wood and Arpa. He accompanied the two artists as they painted Plein-air ( the open air) in the Texas hill country. According to one newspaper account, Wood had grown tired of painting the small tedious bluebonnets and hired Salinas to add bluebonnets to his paintings, paying him five dollars per painting.
Salinas learned enough from these two artists to open his own art shop in 1930. During the Great Depression, he sold mostly to local residents and tourists visiting the Alamo. Before 1940, he was not well-known outside of San Antonio, as he participated in a few shows or exhibitions. However, in 1939, Salinas began a lifelong business relationship with Dewey Bradford, an art supply store owner in Austin who also sold the works of Texas artists.
In 1943, the U.S. Army drafted Salinas, but given his age and artistic talent, he was allowed to remain in San Antonio where he worked by day painting murals on the walls of numerous mess halls and other temporary buildings at Fort Sam Houston. According to articles and books on Salinas, his art at the San Antonio military base was thought to have been destroyed when the buildings were demolished. However, in conducting research on Salinas at the McNay Museum Library, I found an old file that included a photo of a painting titled “The Alamo” that had been placed in the Fort Sam Houston Commander’s office. The “Alamo” painting was indeed preserved and can be viewed in the Fort Sam Houston Museum.
After the war, Salinas returned to the studio and Plein-air painting. The post-war years were also the beginning of his most successful years as a painter. There is some debate as to what famous Texans bought his first painting. Soon after World War II, Dewey Bradford is said to have sold a Salinas painting to Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Sam Rayburn. Rayburn hung his Salinas paintings at his home and in his office in Washington DC where Lady Bird Johnson admired them.
She and her husband, then-Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson, purchased several, as did the famed writer, J. Frank Dobie. When LBJ became a U.S. Senator, he purchased additional Salinas paintings for his office.
Other than art dealer Bradford, no one did more to enhance Salinas’ art career than Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife Lady Bird Johnson. The Johnsons had collected Salinas’ work since the late 1940s. When Vice President Johnson succeeded President John F. Kennedy, he hung numerous Salinas paintings in his White House office and at his home and Junction, Texas ranch office. In an article titled “L.B.J.’s Favorite Painter,” a New York Times reporter wrote that a “Salinas canvas is a chunk of Texas instantly recognized by anyone who has plodded across the sparse countryside of yucca and huisache.” The report added that “for 30 years [Salinas’s] work has been marked by faithful color, elaborate detail, and a keen eye for the vastness of the Texas plains.”
The sixties were very productive years for Salinas. It is estimated by art gallery owner Charles Morin that Salinas painted several thousand landscapes in that decade alone. The sixties also represented a time when young Mexican Americans from Salinas’ San Antonio Westside neighborhood came of age as artists. Less than two blocks away lived Jesse Trevino, one of the outstanding artists of his generation.
Whereas Salinas had been inspired by Julian and Robert Onderdonk, Robert Wood, and Jose Apra–all known for their Texas landscapes, the artistic
perspectives of the new generation of Mexican American artists were shaped more by their urban upbringing and bilingual cultural environment. Moreover, many of the San Antonio and South Texas artists looked South to the Mexican masters of an earlier era which included Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Siqueiros, and Rufino Tamayo. These Mexican artists incorporated pre-Columbian motifs, Mexican Revolution icons, and images of campesinos and workers.
When Salinas died on April 20, 1973, The New Times commented on President Johnson’s appreciation for his
work, adding that Lady Bird Johnson had once commissioned Salinas to paint some of her husband’s favorite scenes along the Pedernales River. The Times reported that “The artist’s work has been described as a type of heightened realism, picturing brimming creeks, brilliant patches of winter oaks, gnarled oaks, wildflowers, and bluebonnets thrusting purplish-blue heads toward the sun.”
As an artist, Salinas put San Antonio on the cultural map. Many artists followed his path, and western and Texas landscape paintings remain popular today. But during Salinas’ golden years, he also witnessed the emergence of a new Texas art, one that focused on the Mexican American experience. By the time of Salinas’ death in 1973, a new generation of Mexican American artists had begun creating work that placed greater emphasis on Latino identity and culture.
*For additional information on Porfirio Salinas and other Mexican American artists, see my essay “Hispanic Art in Texas,” in Ron Tyler’s edited book The Art of Texas: 250 Years published by TCU Press with the Witte Museum 2019.