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On the Trail of Tom Lea

El Paso-born artist Tom Lea left a legacy of paintings across his home state.
Written by E. Dan Klepper.

The Lead Steer, Tom Lea (courtesy Blanton Museum of Art, gift of C.R. Smith)

We Texans love to celebrate our heritage in creative ways, and we go so far as to designate special routes that commemorate important events in our state’s past. Among them, the Independence Trail follows our struggle to statehood, leading us from the Brazos River bottomlands to the Alamo in San Antonio, and the Forts Trail traces historic settlements on the edge of the Texas frontier. Our trails also celebrate the progress of early influential personalities like Comanche Chief Quanah Parker and statesman Sam Houston, who—along with other notable figures including lawmen, pioneer women, Buffalo Soldiers, and vaqueros—deserve recognition for their unique contributions to Texas and what it is, as well as what it represents, today.

Texan Tom Lea—noted painter, muralist, author, and war correspondent—even gets his own month, at least as far as his hometown of El Paso is concerned. And Lea’s decades of creativity and accomplishment created a trail as well.  Even though the Tom Lea Trail is not officially designated, following it requires a rambling traverse of the entire state. And, unlike a military leader or frontier defender, Tom Lea commanded his bit of history with brush and pen rather than with bayonet or musket. In doing so, Lea helped to define the way the world would view the mythology of Texas for much of the 20th Century.

To celebrate and understand the creative energy of Tom Lea, we must start where Lea himself began and where, perhaps, he made his greatest contributions—in El Paso del Norte, known today as El Paso.

Lea was born in 1907, just a few years before the start of the Mexican Revolution. As the son of a prominent defense attorney who served as El Paso’s mayor from 1915-17, Lea enjoyed the advantages of a civil, affluent household despite the dangers posed by the Mexican Revolution’s proximity. After expressing a talent for the arts through childhood, Lea left El Paso for the Art Institute of Chicago where, at 18, he began two years of formal training, followed by a five-year apprenticeship with Chicago muralist John Norton, including a period in Italy to study Renaissance frescoes.

Lea left El Paso an enthusiastic youth and returned, more than a decade later, an accomplished, professional artist with a number of major works under his belt. But it would be his commission for the city’s federal courthouse that would solidify his reputation as a Texas muralist and draftsman, idealizing the state’s long and varied history with a stylized and cinematic flair. The mural’s location, a wall 12 feet high and 53 feet long intersected by a broad Classical doorway, provided an ideal canvas for his first true masterwork—Pass of the North.

“I filled the space on each side of the door with figures of old giants, some of them nine feet tall, standing before a background of Mount Franklin and the Rio Grande,” Lea wrote, describing the work in his autobiography A Picture Gallery. It took Lea the first half of 1938 to finish the painting, populating the desert-landscape background with larger-than-life figures including a U.S. soldier, a Franciscan priest, a Mexican vaquero, horses, a Spanish explorer, pioneer settlers, Apaches, a Texas rancher, a prospector, and the town sheriff. Lea claimed the mural to be the one he learned the most from, worked the hardest at, and took the most pleasure in completing.

Pass of the North represented more than Lea’s passion for dramatizing Texas history. In many ways it also embodied a departure for Texas art in a fast-changing world of early-20th-Century fine art. While the art centers of New York and Paris had already begun to move toward abstraction, many artists in American rural provinces held fast to realism. In this environment, Lea’s artwork shone, allowing him to thrive in an era when mural painting often represented the true measure of an artist.

But to see the evolution of Tom Lea’s independent style you must travel north, just as “Pass” suggests, and back in time to Dallas and the extravagant Hall of State. The Hall of State, located in Fair Park and built to house the exhibits of the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition, was designed by a team of 11 architects, led by Houston’s Donald Barthelme, and constructed to create an elaborate interpretation of the Art Deco style of the period. Lea was among several artists commissioned to decorate the interior, including a portico and “great hall” flanked by colonnaded galleries, a task he was both honored and delighted to tackle. Here, on the north wall of the West Texas Room, you’ll find Lea’s idealized cowboy, lanky and bow-legged with lariat in hand, posed among the desert mountains and corrals of the classic Trans-Pecos ranchlands. The mural, seven feet high and 13 feet long, is one part realism and two parts drama, dominated by a modern style that prevails in other Texas regionalists of the period. It is also, without a doubt, all Tom Lea.

Wherever Texas leads, its chroniclers will follow. Thus the state’s enthusiasm for its frontier past and its iconic cowboy continued to dominate Lea’s subject matter. Traveling south you’ll find examples in Austin, including a full-color oil called The Lead Steer at the Blanton Museum of Art, and the more subdued A Little Shade in Waco’s Texas Ranger Hall of Fame. Both works provide testimony to Lea’s enthrallment with the subject matter.

Perhaps the work that best illustrates Lea’s grasp of magnitude and drama in the icon of the Texas West can be seen in the Odessa Post Office. Here, Lea’s stormy nighttime mural of Longhorns in mid-stampede, spooked by a lightning strike, thunder across 16-plus feet of post office wall. Amid the terrorized cattle, a lone cowboy and his up-ended horse tumble toward the ground, overtaken by the battalion of Longhorn hooves and horns. Painted in 1940 as part of the WPA program, Stampede remains one of Lea’s most arresting works of the period.

Then, beginning in 1941, Lea would witness firsthand a theater of far greater violence.  “In the fall of 1941,” Lea wrote, “I went to sea aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer on duty in the submarine-haunted North Atlantic, as an Accredited War Artist-Correspondent of Life Magazine. … I became, for deeply felt reasons, an eye-witness reporter, in drawings and paintings, of men and their machines waging a war worldwide. … I want to make it clear that I did not report hearsay; I did not imagine, or fake, or improvise; I did not cuddle up with personal emotion, moral notion, or political opinion about War with a capital-W.  I reported in pictures what I saw with my own two eyes, wide open. … In those years, 1941-1945, I saw, and I drew, and I painted, many kinds of things, many men, in many situations, in many places. To this day, you see a man here who is proud—exceedingly proud—that he went out and saw it, and came back home bringing a legible, trustworthy record of what he saw. And to this day, you see a man here who is grateful—humbly grateful—that he got home with his hide intact.”

Stampede (Odessa Post office)

Lea’s remarkable collection of work from this period, 82 pieces in all, portrays his illustrative skills at their best. Dense with narrative and unsparing in its depiction of carnage, the collection expresses an understanding of tragedy and pathos that required an unflinching eye. Although the collection is archived at the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, it tours periodically, including in an exhibition planned for the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg in late 2015.

Undoubtedly, the war left its mark on Lea’s psyche. But rather than retreat, Lea began a period of prolific creativity upon his return home at war’s end. He began to write as well as paint, publishing a best-selling novel titled The Brave Bulls in 1948. Several years after publication, the rights were sold to the film industry and in 1951 the movie, starring Mel Ferrer and Anthony Quinn, was released. It was followed by The Wonderful Country, based on Lea’s western of the same name, starring Robert Mitchum.

Lea’s penchant for dramatization was aided by the mastery of his draftsmanship, a skill he used repeatedly to re-create not only what he saw but what he could imagine. To get a real sense of Lea’s abilities, you’ll want to travel southeast to the Texas coast and Galveston. Here, at the UT Galveston Moody Medical Library, Lea’s The First Recorded Surgical Operation in North America, Cabeza de Vaca, portrays the Spanish explorer removing a flint arrowhead from the wounded chest of a Native American. The work has all the tension of the grand narrative, made all the more real by Lea’s skillful hand and brought to life by his sense of scale and style.

But perhaps the greatest character in Lea’s work and the one he painted best was the expansive landscape of his home.  “We have the privilege of living in this life in this marvelous place,” Lea wrote.  “And writing and painting to me don’t have anything to do with who I am and what I do, but with what is so wonderful about what’s out there.” To witness just what Lea meant you’ll want to return, full circle, back to his homeland in El Paso. Here, across a wall in the El Paso Public Library, Lea painted Southwest, a mural 20 feet across that depicts the landscape he loved most. “It took its shape simply as a luminous window looking out upon its birthland,” Lea wrote of creating the work.  “It spoke of space, sun, cloud, rain, wind, mountain, mesa, rock, sand, soil, and of living growth nurtured by them. …It was the earth, inhabited only by the viewer’s mind.”

Completed in 1956, Southwest wouldn’t be Lea’s last work of art. He lived and painted for another 45 years. But it would be perhaps the one that best embraced his grasp on the transformative power of art. “Having love in your life,” Lea wrote of his passion for art and the homeland before him, “having energy enough to pursue a thing with all your might and all your spirit.  You’re not telling anyone about how good you are, but about how good they are because look at what they can see and do and feel in this marvelous life.”

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