As explorers and adventurers pushed west across the United States, photographers and painters – many of them from England and France – followed, producing images of the Rocky Mountains, Yosemite, Yellowstone, and other natural wonders unknown in the East.
In 1843, a young Parisian surveyor and trained artist named Theodore Gentilz accompanied French entrepreneur Henri Castro to San Antonio in pursuit of adventure and “a million dollars in five years,” Castro promised, by helping establish the colony of Castroville. Though immense fortune never came to pass, Gentilz remained in Castroville and then San Antonio until his death in 1903. He and his wife, Marie, to whom he apparently had been engaged in France, owned a home at 323 N. Flores St., just a few blocks from Main Plaza. His sketches and paintings depicting the town’s early life are treasures.
“What my dad always loved about them is that they were painted before a camera was ever in the state of Texas,” said Kate Sheerin, daughter of farmer, investor, and museum patron J. Laurence “Larry” Sheerin. “It’s a very photorealist-style of portraying what San Antonio looked like.”
The Sheerin family – Larry, wife Betty Lou, and children Kate and Laurence –recently made a life gift of their Gentilz collection, representing approximately 80% of the artist’s work, to the San Antonio Museum of Art. A life gift transfers the works at a later date, but the museum’s Kelso Director Katie Luber already sees the donation as transformational.
“As a museum director I can say, ‘brilliant.’ That’s how museums thrive, that’s how museums become more important to their communities, when families like the Sheerins make gifts like this,” she told the Rivard Report. “You cannot underscore that enough. It is critical to our success but also to the success of the city. It’s an important gift to the future of San Antonio.”
Larry Sheerin’s purchase of the Gentilz collection was something of a fluke, Kate Sheerin said. An avid collector of guns, her father met with a seller sometime in the 1950s who asked him if he happened to be interested in art.
“My dad said, ‘Yeah, I like art,’” Sheerin explained. “And he pulled out all these unframed canvases and a lot of works on paper. Dad was very interested, and they left it he was going to get back to him with an offer.”
At home her father happened to pick up the new Life magazine – Marilyn Monroe was featured on the cover – and noticed a story about “lost artists of the West.” One of them was Theodore Gentilz.
“He was like, ‘Holy smokes, this is what that guy had under his bed!’” Sheerin said. “So he bought the gun and a pair of pistols, and he bought his Gentilz collection.”
By coincidence, the collector’s name was Frétellière, which was also the name of Gentilz’s best friend and neighbor in San Antonio. The connection, unfortunately, isn’t clear to the Sheerins.
The Sheerins’ collection also includes a surveyor’s map of Mexico made by Gentilz. Sheerin said her father came across it in a used book store and noticed it was signed by Gentilz.
“The owner said, ‘You know that’s a pretty special map.’ Dad said, ‘Really? It doesn’t look that special.’
“‘I can sell it to you, but it’s going to be expensive,’ the book seller said. Dad said, ‘I need a number.’
“‘I’m going to have to ask $15,’” he said. Obviously, it sold.
Unlike other 19th century artists who were captivated by the American landscape, Gentilz focused on daily life in and around San Antonio, capturing, Sheerin said, “Mexican workers extracting tequila from maguey, and the life of plazas with their churches, and women washing laundry in the river. … He was such an observer of life … the Missions, the different classes of people,” a culture mixing Anglos, Mexicans, Germans, Indians and others.
“I look at those paintings and I see this totally fearless, intrepid, really noble person,” she added. “Can you imagine being a white foreigner and painting the Comanches and the slaves? Everybody was terrified of the Comanches. It was dangerous.”
Gentilz also painted nature, and what is believed to be the first image of a black person in Texas. His paintings of the five Missions in near-ruins helped bring about their restoration, Luber said. He depicted the Alamo just eight years after the battle destroyed it.
“His fascination with the history of the creation of this country is something not enough people know about,” Luber said. “He will become such an important artist. … This gift will allow scholars and the museum to study his incredible drawings that show the way he thought through his paintings.”
Having grown up with the art of Gentilz and Julian Onderdonk at her family’s ranch house in South Texas, Sheerin was influenced to become an independent art curator, consultant, and writer, formerly based in Austin. She graduated from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts with a master’s degree in art history, then returned to Texas to study and advocate for Texas art, once serving as assistant curator at the Meadows Museum in Dallas.
“The way that I absorbed this as a child was the [difference between the] historical importance of the work of Gentilz and the aesthetic beauty that Onderdonk was capturing,” she said. “And so it really helped cultivate in me an appreciation of art. You sit around with things like this long enough and you hear your parents talk about them, and interesting people coming over and wanting to talk about them – it really opened up a world of fascination.”
Her travels through the art world have increased her appreciation of Texas art, a feeling not strongly shared in more affluent Texas markets such as Houston and Dallas. This gives San Antonio, particularly the SA Museum of Art, an opportunity, she believes, because San Antonians value their history so strongly.
“If you want to know what’s going on in Texas in the visual arts, whether it’s 1716 or 2018, why not have it be the San Antonio Museum of Art?” Kate asked.
The Sheerins influenced a good family friend, Betty Kelso, to share their vision of preserving and keeping Texas art in Texas, from early artifacts to contemporary works. Kelso got on board and began collecting “like wildfire,” Sheerin said, though she preferred to “leave the contemporary art to ‘you young people.’” She also established an endowment to enable the Museum to build a home, unparalleled anywhere, for the permanent exhibition of Texas art.
Kelso and the Sheerin family were honored at the annual San Antonio Museum of Art Gala on March 30 for their contributions to the institution’s growth. Tragically, Kelso passed away the same day.
“Her vision has been for the San Antonio Museum of Art to be the center for the art of Texas,” Luber said. “That is a vision that I honor deeply. It’s something I would like to see happen.”