P.H. Robinson Generating Station, Dickinson, Texas: Eight Ibis Feeding with an Egret, 1991
Rackstraw Downes, American, born England, 1939
Oil on canvas
16 × 108 1/4 in. (40.6 × 275 cm)
Museum purchase funded by Houston Lighting & Power Company
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Painting Local History
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
• Describe and analyze a painting.
• Explain the significance of works of art in relation to Texas history.
• Create a painting that records a significant event in history.
Connecting to the Work of Art
The P.H. Robinson generating station, located in Dickinson,Texas, south of Houston, is operated by the Houston Lighting and Power Company. From 1988 through 1991, Rackstraw Downes painted the plant and its environs.
One thing I like about this area of Texas is the naked, blatant proximity of nature and industry; it is a true metaphor of the state of our planet and the competing interests of its various inhabitants. I don’t wish to sentimentalize either nature or industry but, in a particular spot, take the measure of each empirically.¹
The composition shows the site in March, “when the new green grasses start up, but the trees and bushes are still bare.” The generating plant sits at the right of the composition. Power lines extend from the plant into the prairie landscape at left, showing how electricity is distributed from the plant. In the middle ground, birds – ibis and egrets – nest in the bushes near the puddles. In the foreground are tire tracks from a jeep or truck, which add an element of high spirits, bringing “a populist touch to this painting of otherwise impersonal protagonists.”
This painting relies on a meticulous attention to detail, use of color to create a mood, and an unusually long, narrow format. The neutral palette of soft browns, blues, and greens recalls the early spring and is punctuated by the red stripes on the chimneys that help focus attention on the generating plant. Downes chose a vantage point from the highest spot in the county, which gives a vast panoramic view. The long, narrow format and the sweep of power lines into the far distance emphasize the flat prairie landscape.
Born in England in 1939, Rackstraw Downes studied art at Yale University in the early 1960s. He began his career as an abstract painter but, in the mid-1960s, turned to realism. His painting is influenced by the meticulously detailed Flemish landscape paintings of the Renaissance, realistic American art, and panoramic photographs. For additional information about Dutch landscape painting, see Willem Claesz. Heda’s Banquet Piece with Ham (Teachers’ Guide Grades 4-6, page --). Although grounded in detail and documentation, Downes’s work goes beyond that reality to sublime images of nature.²
Downes began this work in 1988 by making sketches at the site. In 1989, he started the full-size canvas. After laying in the rough underpainting of the image in the studio, he did all the remaining work on the site in Dickinson. By 1991, Downes had completed the work, except for the sky. After trying many approaches, he created a new oil sketch. Then, in his studio in New York, he repainted the sky in the final composition.
1. All quotations are from a letter dated October 10, 1992, from the artist to Alison de Lima Greene, curator of twentieth-century art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
2. Frank H. Goodyear, Jr., Contemporary American Realism since 1960 (Philadelphia: The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1981), pp. 133-35.
Describe the painting: what objects, buildings and other details do you see?
Describe the lines and planes in this painting.
What is the focus in this work? How does the artist create balance even though the main object may be off-center?
What is unusual about the measurements of this work? What effect does the elongated horizontal plane have on the scene depicted? How would the work be different if the painting was square?
Observe the color palette. What are the main color tones? What mood do they convey?
What are the natural and man-made elements in this work?
The artists contrasted a generating plant and electricity poles with a grassy plane and birds (eight ibis and an egret). What do you think the artist was trying to say?
The artist said: “One thing I like about this area of Texas is the naked, blatant proximity of nature and industry; it is a true metaphor of the state of our planet and the competing interests of its various inhabitants. I don’t wish to sentimentalize either nature or industry but, in a particular spot, take the measure of each empirically.” Do you think the artist has succeeded in his goal to show nature and industry side-by-side in this particular painting? Did you interpret this work as a peaceful coexistence of nature and industry? Why?
What season do you think is depicted? Why?
The composition shows the site in March, “when the new green grasses start up, but the trees and bushes are still bare.” This makes the electricity power lines more visible. Why do you think the artist made the composition like it is? Do you think the composition is balanced?
The generating plant sits at the right of the composition. Power lines extend from the plant into the prairie landscape at left, showing how electricity is distributed from the plant. What else might this composition tell us? Consider the type of landscape and the viewpoint of the artist
The artist chose a vantage point from the highest spot in the county, which gives a vast panoramic view. The long, narrow format and the sweep of power lines into the far distance emphasize the flat prairie landscape. Do you think the painting is realistic? Does the artist just render the landscape in great detail, or does he idealize it? What is the mood of this work?
• Choose several important events in history. Discuss why these events are significant and how they affected the course of history.
• Have students choose an important event as a subject for a painting, select the shape of the paper that will best convey the story, and paint the composition.
Subject Matter Connection
One of the major reasons artists create art is to communicate an idea. Understanding how to break apart a work of art to see what is being communicated is a vital part of learning about art and how to be an artist. Students who learn how to truly communicate thoughts and concepts create meaningful works of art that have an impact on society.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
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All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.