“Every expert in this world started out as a beginner.”
Mary Bonner enthralled Parisian art circles with her lively Texas motifs. She was born on a genteel Louisiana plantation. After her father’s death, her mother moved the family to San Antonio in 1897 so that the children could pursue a good education. Mary and her two older siblings spent summers on a ranch near Uvalde, where Mary keenly observed cowboys at work amid native Texas flora and fauna, committing precision images to memory.
From 1901 to 1904, Mary attended San Antonio Academy, a coeducational school at that time. Upon graduating from high school, she entered The University of Texas at Austin and attended through spring term 1906. The course of her actions for the next 16 years is unclear, but she appears to have studied art in Switzerland and Germany and returned to Texas fluent in French.
Her career began in earnest in 1922, during a visit to the art colony at Woodstock in upstate New York. One day Mary walked four miles to confer with an expert in lithography. She arrived exhausted, and the master advised her to engage in a craft less physically demanding—something like etching. Henceforth, Mary spent her life perfecting that skill.
Moving to Paris, she apprenticed under renowned printmaker Édouard-Henri Léon, took up lodging in bohemian Montparnasse, and began submitting etchings to art shows. Her work drew acclaim for its images of broncos bucking, cowboys roping, mesquite, cactus, rattlesnakes, scorpions, weathered missions—motifs exotic and exciting to French audiences.
With several prestigious medals in hand, Mary toured the U.S. with her mentor Léon in 1927. The duo had shows in Houston, San Antonio, New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, becoming the talk of art salons. Although Mary traveled to Paris again, she increasingly devoted her energies to funding and preserving arts in San Antonio. The accomplished artist freely donated her works to support causes during the bleak years of the Great Depression.
"I walked and walked for nearly two hours before I found his little house, and when I arrived and he saw my exhausted state, he declined to teach me because he said I wasn’t strong enough to handle the material and implements required. “Why don’t you try something light and easy, like etching?” he advised me kindly. That seemed reasonable enough. —Mary Bonner, explaining why she took up etching