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 Tom Lea  (1907 - 2001)

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Lived/Active: Texas      Known for: illustration, cattle ranching scene painting, mural

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Ad Code: 3
Tom Lea
from Auction House Records.
Dry December
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born and raised in El Paso, Texas, Tom Lea was a painter, illustrator, muralist, teacher, writer and commercial artist.  Many of his paintings depicted scenes from Texas, although his career ranged beyond his home state.

During his youth, he spent many summers working on ranches in both Texas and New Mexico. At age seventeen he enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago, and from 1926 to 1933, worked there as a mural assistant to John Warner Norton, a noted muralist.  From this job, he earned money to travel and study in Italy for a year.  Returning, he moved to Santa Fe, and from 1933 to 1935 he worked part time on the staff of the Laboratory of Anthropology.

In 1936, his first wife died, and Lea returned to El Paso, where he opened a studio and worked as an illustrator and WPA library and post- office muralist.  He also completed Saturday Evening Post and Life magazine illustrations.  During World War II, Life  magazine personnel hired Lea as a combat artist, and he recorded battles in Italy, the South Pacific, the China-Burma Theatre and the North Atlantic and the Arctic.  For his excellent work, he received a Distinguished Service Award from the United States Navy.

After the war, Lea returned to El Paso and continued with mural and canvas painting and illustrations.  He did a series of canvases on the evolution of the cattle industry and wrote extensively on the beef industry including a history, The King Ranch, published in 1957.

John and Deborah Powers, Texas Painters, Sculptors & Graphic Artists

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following are excerpts from the obituary of the artist from the New York Times online, February 4, 2001:

"Tom Lea, Artist and Author, Dies at 93"

Tom Lea, a West Texas artist and writer whose work was called inspirational by President Bush, then governor of Texas, in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in August, died on Monday in El Paso. He was 93.

In the 1930's, Mr. Lea, a landscape painter, produced murals for public buildings in Dallas and El Paso and for the Benjamin Franklin Post Office in Washington.  During World War II he worked as an illustrator for Life magazine.  He illustrated The Longhorns, a book by J. Frank Dobie, and wrote several books, including The Brave Bulls and The Wonderful Country, both of which were made into movies in the 1950's, and A Picture Gallery.

It was from the last of these that Mr. Bush, who owns some of Mr. Lea's work, quoted at the end of his speech, saying that the artist "captured the way I feel about our great land."

Mr. Lea's work is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.

Biography from Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers, IV:
Tom Lea (1907-2001) was a genius of the twentieth century whose extraordinary gifts as a muralist, illustrator, war correspondent, portraitist, novelist, historian and easel painter brought fame to himself and to Texas.

Tom Lea’s murals of the 1930’s express the history and character of the Southwest on walls of public buildings from Washington, D.C. to Dallas, Texas, and are arguably the finest of the period. As an eye-witness artist correspondent for Life Magazine during World War II, Tom Lea traveled over 100,000 miles to record U.S. and Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen and their machines waging war worldwide. He wrote and illustrated bestselling novels—The Brave Bulls and The Wonderful Country—that were adapted into Hollywood movies, and a dozen other books about subjects as diverse as mountaineering in Wyoming, horse training in 16th century New Spain, and the history of the mammoth King Ranch. His paintings depict remote and exotic places from Equador to China, but primarily capture subjects found near his home on the border between Mexico and Texas.

Despite his accomplishments, Tom Lea was largely unknown outside Texas when he died on January 29, 2001. His work had taken him to every continent, but he always returned home to El Paso—to paint and to write near Mount Franklin—far from current fashions and art world trends. Tom Lea never sought the approval of a critic or the favor of a museum director, placing the majority of his paintings after World War II in the private collections of his personal friends.

Those friends have generously responded to efforts to preserve Tom Lea’s work, establishing repositories at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Texas at El Paso and the El Paso Museum of Art. Friends have now established the Tom Lea Institute, a not-for-profit corporation, to perpetuate his legacy through collaboration and education.

Reference: The Tom Lea Institute (

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Tom Lea is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
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