We’d been looking forward to this day for eleven years. We were finally on our way to Orange, Texas, to visit the Stark Museum of Western Art. What an odyssey we set for ourselves when we picked up the “Museums West” brochure and decided to visit each of the Western Art museums in the association. Now we were almost at the last, the thirteenth, museum on the list, and to get there we were driving on a long causeway in Louisiana that was built over a vast swampy area that is part of Sabine Lake.
The Sabine River marks the border between Louisiana and Texas. As we approach the bridge that will take us to Texas, someone has found enough dry land to build a multistory casino and the western bank of the river supports a seemingly endless skyline of oil tanks, refineries and chemical plants. In the past, the river has served as the United States’ border with what had been Spanish territory, later with Mexico and also with the independent State of Texas.
This is the river that flows through the vast pine forests that lured the loggers and lumbermen who built the town of Orange, Texas. Orange is located 160 miles from Baton Rouge and 110 miles from Houston. Now there is very little in Orange to draw newcomers or tourists to the city (other than the museum we are about to visit), but that wasn’t always the case.
The Sabine River’s 510 mile course made it an excellent route for boatmen bringing loads in and out of remote interior areas of the country. This long trade route provided easy pickings for pirates. The famous pirate Jean Laffite even established a bayou colony in the region as a base for his operations.
Ferry service was established in the late 1700s and in 1836 Orange was founded at this location. It thus became the eastern-most town in Texas. Traffic on the Sabine kept growing and in 1843 steamboats were introduced to the river…then two years later, Texas was annexed into the United States on December 29, 1845, making it the twenty-eighth state.
A strategic Civil War battle took place in 1863, when a Confederate force halted a Union Army invasion of Texas at the mouth of the Sabine River (about forty miles south of Orange). After the war the city’s prospects brightened when lumbering operations began cutting their way through Piney Woods, an old growth forest just north of Orange. The Sabine was used to hold the massive logs and then to move then downriver.
Orange was becoming a booming lumber center when young William Henry Stark came to town in 1870 to find work. Stark had been born in 1851 in San Augustine, Texas, and was raised in Burkeville, Texas. He received little formal education before his mother died when he was ten years old and his father was away fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Young Stark took over and operated the farm and cared for the family until his father returned home in 1865. Stark was familiar with Orange since he worked a mail contract while in his teens, making regular runs on his pony over the seventy miles between Burkeville and Orange. In 1870, he moved to Orange and took a job cleaning bark out of a lumber mill and later became a sawyer. After three years, he used his saved earnings to buy a small stable that he developed into a large and profitable livery business. He continued developing businesses and became a rich and successful. (“Stark, William Henry,” Ellis A. Davis and Edwin H. Grobe, eds. New Encyclopedia of Texas. Dallas, TX Texas Development Bureau, 1926, Vol. 1, p. 1012. Online under Texas Transportation Archive; and ”Stark, William Henry,” Howard C. Williams, Texas State Historical Association. Accessed April 24, 2020]
On December 22, 1881, William Stark married Miriam Melissa Lutcher. Miriam was born in 1859 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and moved with her family to Orange in 1877. Her father was co-owner of the Lutcher Moore Lumber Company, and soon after the marriage, Stark became the president of two lumber companies. He had a good mind for business and an entrepreneurial spirit that fitted nicely into the family’s already varied holdings in land, cattle, banking and farming. [”Stark, Miriam Melissa Lutcher,” Catherine P. Eggers, Texas State Historical Association. Accessed April 24, 2020]
In 1894, the Starks and their seven-year-old son, H.J. Lutcher Stark, moved into a 14,000 square foot Victorian mansion they built in Orange.
Although petroleum had been discovered in Texas earlier, the Spindletop strike in nearby Beaumont in 1901 added to both the population of Orange and the family’s business portfolio. Starks’s business acumen and innovations added to Orange’s prosperity. He championed the dredging of the Sabine River to create a deep water port, which increased shipping capability and led to ship building, including the construction of 300 ships during WWI. His idea for an irrigation system led to increased rice crops in the region; and in 1924 he introduced the sale of graded lumber, an idea which was immediately popular and increased business on that front.
Beyond business success, both Starks had a strong sense of social responsibility, and the couple took active roles in community affairs. They made generous donations to support art, charity and education. Miriam created a “Reading and Declamation” contest that still continues to award scholarships to public high school students from Orange County.
She was also an avid collector of rare and unique decorative objects…a passion her husband quickly embraced, and together they began collecting Western Art and Native American objects.
After their deaths in 1936, their son, Lutcher Stark (1887-1965), and his wife, Nelda, continued to expand the family’s collections of Western Art, crystal, porcelain, and rare botanical books and prints. Lutcher was strongly influenced by his parents’ dedication to the arts and philanthropy, so he and his wife created the Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark Foundation that owns and operates the Stark Museum; the Frances Ann Lutcher Theater, which brings world-class performing arts to Orange, and the Shangri La Gardens and Nature Preserve. They also restored the W.H. Stark House and the Foundation continues to support the scholarship program Miriam Stark started so many years before.
Hurricanes have created havoc in Orange over the years. Katrina and Rita left extensive damage in 2005, and in 2008 Ike flooded almost the entire city. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey raged through and left more than half the county under water.
Today, only a few beautiful old buildings dot the city streets that have become increasingly vacated. An interesting exception to this is the Stark Museum of Art with its white modern facade contrasting with the family’s Victorian mansion across the street. The museum “houses one of the nation’s most significant collections of American Western art, which focuses on the stunning land, dramatic people and diverse wildlife of the American West.”
As you enter the large open lobby, historic photos are used to create a timeline that introduces visitors to the Lutcher and Stark families.
A 1911 Humpmobile is on display after being restored to pristine condition. Its four-cylinder engine was capable of achieving speeds up to fifty miles an hour, but I doubt there were many roads it ever traveled that would allow for that. In fact, as shown in this photo of Lutcher and his father on their Colorado ranch; the poor vehicle seems to have had quite a rugged life before it was put into storage.
In the center of the lobby, a masterwork collection of Western bronzes is surrounded by an equally impressive collection of Navajo rugs woven between the late 1800s and the mid-1900s. In the surrounding glass-front cases are some of the works from the museum’s complete collection of American birds by Dorothy Doughty. The display of these works extends around the corner with more of Doughty’s pieces as well as porcelain birds by Boehm.
Our visit happened to coincide with an exhibition titled “Conservation Art: Federal Duck Stamps & Prints.” This federal stamp program was created in 1934 to raise awareness of the decline of duck and migratory bird populations. Each year, hundreds of artists submit drawings, which are judged for accuracy as well as content. The winner must be suitable for printing on a one-inch stamp. To date, these United States Postal Service stamps have raised over $700 million for conservation efforts. Each wall in the large gallery was lined with the framed original artworks and the resulting stamps.
Another gallery houses the museum’s collection titled “The United States in Crystal.” We were fascinated by the precision and perfection reflected in the fifty Steuben Glass covered bowls on display, each engraved with the name of a state and a unique representative etching. The Stark Museum holds the only complete collection of this crystal series.
We enjoyed the variety of nineteenth and twentieth century artifacts on display in the gallery titled “Creating from Traditions: Arts of the American Indians.”
After enjoying those artifacts, I found myself next drawn to the paintings and drawings in the following three galleries of Western Art. The first gallery focuses on “Exploring America’s Frontiers” and features works by John James Audubon, Thomas Moran and other early American artists.
Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) was German-born but was raised in the U.S. After he completed his art training, he traveled west with a survey expedition and began creating lavish landscapes. This was to be the first of several trips he would take to record what he saw in that vast wilderness. Above his painting “Yosemite Valley” (ca. 1898) is his quote: “We are now here in the Garden of Eden…and I employ every moment painting from nature.”
Canadian artist Paul Kane was born in Ireland in 1810 and moved with his family to Canada when he was ten years old. Kane was essentially self-trained and sought to capture the landscape and Indian people before their culture changed. He traveled around the Great Lakes and also went out west over the Rocky Mountains to Victoria and Vancouver. His field sketches and notes are replete with detailed descriptions, but he gave way to less accuracy and more drama in his subsequent oil paintings.
Thomas Moran (1837-1926) visited the Grand Canyon with John Wesley Powell’s 1873 expedition of the Colorado River and often returned to that site. In “Mojave Wall” he captures some of the intense colors that are characteristic in the canyon with its shifting and changing light.
Next, we moved into the gallery named “Picturing the Wild West” to enjoy the romance and drama of the Old West in the late nineteenth and early-twentieth century. Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell and N.C. Wyeth are some of the artists whose works tell stories…their illustrations were published in the novels and short stories that have captured the imaginations of generations of readers.
The romance of the West did not stop with these historic painters. “Rodeo Poster,” a 2018 work, is a wonderful piece that proves that the vibrancy of that western dream is still alive in art today. The piece also underscores the vitality of the Stark Collection as it continues to evolve. Thomas Blackshear II is a contemporary African American artist (1955- ) and in this painting he depicted a rodeo cowboy leaning next to a Pendleton Round-Up poster. Although the poster in the painting is dated 1917, the story behind the painting may refer back to a much-disputed bronc-riding contest in 1911 when the winner seems to have been chosen based on skin color and not ridership.
The third gallery, “Portraying an Idyllic Place” focuses mainly on art that depicts the beauty of the landscape and culture of New Mexico. The works here are by Taos Society of Artists, W.H. Dunton, Georgia O’Keefe and other twentieth-century artists.
“Guide to Ourselves and Taos Neighbors” by Ernest Leonard Blumencshein (1874-1960) is the quintessential piece to fit this gallery’s description. For those of us who do not recognize the faces of the artists and cultural leaders in the painting, the artist has even provided a diagram and a roster of names.
W.H. Dunton (William Herbert 1878-1936) was known for his career as an illustrator as well as his paintings. “McMullin, Guide” is a dramatic portrait of his friend John McMullin who was a wrangler and guide. To ensure accuracy, Dunton was known for making detailed animal studies, and for this work he painted each of McMullin’s dogs so the final piece would reflect their individual characters.
Victor Williams’ (1884-1949) large painting “Apaches” is another work that speaks strongly of the landscape and the unique culture of those living on that land.
While we were in the museum, two busloads of high school students arrived. After taking docent-led tours of the galleries, each student was given a pencil, paper and a clipboard and told to pick a favorite drawing to copy. It seemed to me that their interest had been peaked since I didn’t see much hesitation as they scattered…they knew what they liked. In case they did need encouragement or assistance, there were plenty of volunteers on hand.
Don and I had come to the Stark Museum to see a collection of Western Art and our experience was vastly enriched by the discovery of the family behind that collection. Their hard work and leadership has had an enormous impact, and they have left a magnificent collection of art behind as well as imparting an important lesson about the impact of community responsibility and involvement.