Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

email signup Blog Video Facebook Twitter Instagram
Tom Lea

Tom Lea


Tom Lea

Tom Lea (1907–2001), artist and writer, was born in El Paso, Texas. After displaying a natural aptitude for painting and drawing as a child, Lea received formal training at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1924 to 1926, and as apprentice and assistant to the Chicago muralist John Norton from 1927 to 1932. In 1930, Lea traveled to Italy to study the techniques of Renaissance wall painting. One of his early murals, The Nesters, painted in the Post Office Department Building in Washington, D. C., won a national competition in 1935. There followed a commission to paint the mural, Pass of the North, in the United States Court House in El Paso. J. Frank Dobie commissioned Lea to illustrate two of his books from this period, Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver (1939) and The Longhorns (1940).

During World War II, Life magazine hired Lea as a war correspondent/artist to cover the war in the Pacific. Lea's experiences during the war supplied him with ample material as a writer, leading to the publication of A Grizzly from the Coral Sea (1944) and Peleliu Landing (1945). Lea's lifelong friend Carl Hertzog, a book designer, printed both books as well as Lea's Bullfight Manual for Spectators (1949).

Images by Tom Lea
previous stop/next

After the war, Lea began to write fiction, including The Brave Bulls (1949), The Wonderful Country (1952), The Primal Yoke (1960), and The Hands of Cantú (1964). The Brave Bulls won the Carr P. Collins Award of the Texas Institute of Letters for best book by a Texan, and The Hands of Cantú won the Texas Institute's Jesse Jones Award for the best work of fiction by a Texan. Both The Brave Bulls and The Wonderful Country were produced as motion pictures. Lea continued to write non-fiction, including the two-volume The King Ranch (1957), A Picture Gallery (1968), and an account of King Ranch operations in Australia, In the Crucible of the Sun (1974).

Lea was commissioned by Life magazine in 1946 to paint a series of canvases depicting Western cattle, which Life presented to the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. In 1953, the University of Texas Press published Tom Lea: A Portfolio of Six Painting with an Introduction by J. Frank Dobie. Lea's first large exhibition was mounted in 1961 at the Fort Worth Art Center. Lea has also had exhibitions at the El Paso Museum of Art and the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio.

The Tom Lea Collections

Graphite on kraft paper.

Tom Lea
Study for Sarah in the Summertime
Graphite on kraft paper
71 x 30 1/4"

The Sarah and Tom Lea art collection consists of the artist's personal art works, including book illustrations, paintings, drawings, and lithographs. The subjects include Texana art, landscapes, portraits, bullfighting scenes, WWII images, and illustrations for books by Lea, such as The Wonderful Country, The Brave Bulls, and The Primal Yoke, and illustrations for books by J. Frank Dobie.

The collection includes over 200 works completed while Lea attended the Art Institute of Chicago and later while living in Santa Fe. The items include pencil sketches, charcoal, ink, blue pencil, sketches of models and designs for murals and advertising art, Native-American design motifs, linoleum block prints from New Mexico, and one etching. Other art works by Tom Lea can be found in the J. Frank Dobie Art Collection.

The Tom Lea papers (in the Center's manuscript collection) consist of typescript and holograph manuscripts, printed books and pamphlets, photographs, galleys, page proofs, pasteups, mockups, layouts, drawings, transparencies, dust jackets, postcards, correspondence, printed advertisements, invitations, clippings, newspapers, programs, tickets, and a menu.

The Tom Lea photography collection (in the Center's photography collection) includes images of Lea, his wife, other family members, and friends. There are also photographic reproductions of some of his paintings and images associated with the movie production of his book The Brave Bulls, as well as a series of photographs by Lea of the Peleliu landing.

The Tom Lea Suite may be viewed on the Ransom Center's third floor by appointment by calling 512-471-8944.

Other Tom Lea Collections and Resources

El Paso Museum of Art
One Arts Festival Plaza
El Paso, Texas 79901
915-212-0300; Fax: 915-212-0301

The University of Texas at El Paso
University Library—Special Collections
500 W. University Avenue
El Paso, Texas 79968-0582
915-747-5672, Fax: 915-747-5345

Tom Lea Institute
201 E. Main, Suite 100
El Paso, Texas 79901

The Handbook of Texas Online
Search results for Tom Lea


The Reading Room Will Be Closed:

Monday, May 27
Thursday, July 4

Always closed on Sundays

Connect with the
Harry Ransom Center
Flickr YouTube RSS Tumblr Facebook Twitter