Verbenas (Morning). Photography: Courtesy Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum/James D. Hamlin Collection
Verbenas (Morning). Photography: Courtesy Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum/James D. Hamlin Collection

Spreading his time between three countries, the Spanish painter found a home in the heart of Texas.

The year 1899 was pivotal for Texas: It ushered in the arrival of both the automobile and the Spanish painter José Arpa y Perea. The motorized replacement for the horse needs no introduction; Arpa might. Credited with introducing the Lone Star State to the Spanish version of impressionism during a long stay in San Antonio, Arpa earned an important — if not widely known — place among influential artists in Texas art.

“I believe José Arpa may have been the most influential artist in San Antonio during the first quarter of the 20th century, when San Antonio was still the center of Texas art,” says Michael Grauer, curator of art and Western heritage at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, which organized the traveling exhibition José Arpa, Spanish Painter in Texas. “His more highly keyed palette, in particular, set him apart from other prominent landscape painters at that time.”

Arpa’s distinctive style incorporated an unconventional — but decidedly effective and typically Spanish impressionist — use of black. Known for employing natural light and portraying the effects of sunlight, he created landscapes with off-balance compositions and strong diagonal orientation of the horizon line. His subject matter often included the many cultures and peoples he knew and loved.

The son of a humble cobbler, Arpa was born in 1858 in Carmona in southwestern Spain. He began studying art at the Academia des Bellas Artes in nearby Seville at age 10. The next two decades saw Arpa devoting himself to art studies in Rome and painting alongside some of Europe’s most famous impressionist artists. By 1893, he was revered as one of Spain’s elite painters, and his works were sent as part of the Spanish contingent to Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition. Arpa went to Mexico in 1897 and began to divide his time between Spain, Mexico, and Texas. In 1923, he founded his own painting school in San Antonio and a plein-air school nearby in Bandera in 1926.

“He was very forward-thinking during his time,” says Seville-based Dr. Carmen Rodríguez Serrano, who recently completed her doctoral dissertation on Arpa. “It was a brave and adventurous move to leave Seville and travel to distant lands where different languages were spoken. He was driven by his interest in the study of light ... and was able to unify and display the influence of Spain, Mexico, and Texas in his work.”

Grauer believes Arpa was especially drawn to San Antonio because of its Spanish flavor — “particularly with its 17th-century missions, as well as the light and landscape not dissimilar to his native Carmona. Also, San Antonio retained — and still has — its cosmopolitan ‘feel’ from Spain, Germany, and France. It was, and is, a true mezcla of cultures.”

During his time in the United States, Arpa ranged far beyond San Antonio. “He painted Hopi Indian pueblos and the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Enchanted Mesa in New Mexico,” Grauer says. “He also took a trip up the Mississippi to Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin, where he painted a number of watercolors.”

Arpa’s American sojourn came to an end in 1932, when he returned to Spain. Though he would remain there until his death in 1952, he would leave a lasting impression on American art.

“I think the Mexican influence on the art and culture in the U.S. is very much recognized, but the true Spanish influence on these same things in the U.S. is either unknown or misunderstood,” Grauer says. “I hope this exhibition will show what it meant for a Spanish painter to be working in the U.S. from the late 1890s to the early 1930s, when impressionism saw its birth and eventual slow fade. Arpa’s paintings show not only his tremendous skill level but also his versatility in whatever medium he used. Moreover, he was apparently a very pleasant person to be around and I think his alegría de vivir comes through in his work. [There’s] a clearly evident love of life, no matter where he was living and working.”

José Arpa, Spanish Painter in Texas is on view at Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas, through September 5. It travels to The McKinney Avenue Contemporary in Dallas, September 24 – November 27; Witte Museum in San Antonio, December 17, 2016 – February 12, 2017; Art Museum of Southeast Texas in Beaumont, Texas, March 11, 2017 – May 28, 2017.

From the August/September 2016 issue.