October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
The dusty, busy town of San Antonio, Texas, must have seemed an immeasurable distance from home to the twentyfour-year-old Jean Louis Theodore Gentilz. Two months at sea and a grueling overland journey from Galveston separated the young man from his comfortable life as the son of a wealthy Parisian coachmaker. Now, late in 1843, he first looked upon the life he had traded for it. Many would have regretted the change, but something about the big, untidy new land got under Gentilz’ skin, and Texas would be his home for the rest of his life. His story would not have been much different from that of a thousand other immigrants but for the fact that Gentilz was a gifted artist. Throughout his long career he recorded the patterns of native life in his adopted land in bright and charming paintings. The meager records do not reveal why Gentilz decided to come to Texas; perhaps he was personally influenced by the elegant Count Henri Castro. An energetic and gifted man, Castro had negotiated for a tract of land near San Antonio, where he proposed to bring a group of emigrants to form a community called, not surprisingly, Castroville. Most likely Castro wanted to take advantage of Gentilz’ engineering skills, for the artist had attended l’Ecole Impériale de Mathématiques et de Dessin. At any rate Gentilz helped survey Castro’s town but chose not to settle there. Instead he was drawn to San Antonio. It was still predominantly a Mexican city, a place of oxcarts, lime-washed adobe houses, cockfights, and religious celebrations. Gentilz was charmed and fascinated by the simplicity and color of the Mexican populace. Although a Frenchman born and bred, he devoted his artistic career almost exclusively to painting activities of the natives; only a very few pictures of his fellow immigrants remain. San Antonio became more and more Americanized during the latter half of the century, but Gentilz continued to produce his visions of the old way of life. Not really interested in selling his paintings, he earned most of his living by surveying and, after 1879, giving lessons in painting and mathematics. Gentilz continued to paint up to the time of his death in 1906. By then San Antonio was a very different town from the one he had loved. It would no doubt have pleased him to know that his pictures are our best records of the native life of his era. The ones in the following portfolio are taken from Theodore Gentilz: Artist of the Old Southwest , a book by Dorothy Steinbomer Kendall and Carmen Perry, to be published this month by the University of Texas Press.