Tom Lea was born on July 11, 1907, in EI Paso, Texas, across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. His father, a lawyer, served a term as mayor from 1915 to 1917 during the Mexican Revolution. Lea’s high school teacher encouraged him to attend art school, and at age seventeen he enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. Lea studied there from 1924 to 1926 and was strongly influenced by one of his esteemed professors, John W. Norton. Lea spent the next six years working for Norton on mural projects in the Chicago area. In 1927, he married a fellow student, Nancy Taylor. The couple traveled to Europe in 1930, where Lea was deeply moved by Italian Renaissance artists. He shared with them a number of stylistic traits, including close observation of nature and anatomy, meticulous brushwork, and classically inspired compositions. Although exposed to modernist styles, Lea was a traditionalist at heart and always remained connected to his native Southwest.
In 1933, the Leas moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, the artistic center of the Southwest. Lea worked as a painter and illustrator and created art for the Public Works of Art Project (PW AP) and the Works Progress Administration (WP A), government agencies that employed artists during the Great Depression. In 1934, Nancy Lea developed a serious illness and died in 1936 following the couple’s return to EI Paso. A few months later, Lea’s grandmother passed away, followed closely by his mother. Grief-stricken, Lea chose to remain in his hometown. In 1936, Lea applied to the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts, which sponsored a series of competitions to design murals for government buildings around the country. He eventually won five projects, including the Pass of the North mural for the EI Paso federal courthouse. In 1938, Lea married Sarah Catherine Dighton and later adopted her young son, Jim. He also began illustrating books for Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie, including two of his classics: Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver and The Longhorns.
In 1941, Life magazine asked Lea to become a war correspondent. He was first dispatched to the North Atlantic, where he was stationed as a civilian observer on destroyers patrolling the waters between Greenland and the Grand Banks. After the United States officially entered the war, Lea was sent to the Pacific and spent two months on board the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. He recorded his experiences in a series of studies and sketchbooks, which served as visual notes for the paintings he produced in his EI Paso studio for the pages of Life. It was from the Hornet that Lea witnessed the destruction of the aircraft carrier USS Wasp. In 1943, he embarked upon a lengthy trip through England, North Africa, India, and China. In August 1944, Lea joined with a U.S. Marine division assigned to capture Peleliu, a small Pacific island occupied by some 13,000 Japanese troops. He documented this harrowing experience in dozens of drawings and paintings. Life later donated Lea’s wartime imagery to the U.S. Army Center for Military History in Washington, D.C. After the war, Lea completed one last project for Life-a series of paintings on the history of beef cattle in America-which was never published. Back home in EI Paso, he began a life-size portrait of his wife, Sarah in the Summertime, 1947, and returned to painting images of the Southwest. Lea discovered that the art world had changed considerably during his absence. While he had been overseas, Abstract Expressionism had become the dominant style, displacing the figurative vernacular of Lea and other Regionalist artists. Lea decided to embark on a new career as a writer of fiction and history. He spent months researching the subject of bullfighting in Mexico, resulting in his 1949 novel The Brave Bulls. Lea created the pen-and-ink illustrations for the book, which became a bestseller and a 1951 film starring Mel Ferrer and Anthony Quinn. In 1952, Lea published his second illustrated novel, The Wonderful Country, which was likewise well received and adapted by Hollywood. The 1959 film starred Robert Mitchum and Julie London, with Lea making a cameo appearance as a barber. Among Lea’s other major publications are The King Ranch, 1957, an illustrated history of the Kleberg family’s south Texas farming and cattle operation; the illustrated novels The Primal Yoke, 1960, and The Hands of Cantu, 1964; his memoir A Picture Gallery, 1968; and In the Crucible of the Sun, 1974, a history of the King Ranch’s Australian operation.
When not writing, Lea painted in his studio and continued to produce westem-themed works for a loyal circle of patrons and admirers. His remarkable accomplishments did not pass unnoticed in his home state of Texas. Major exhibitions of his work were presented at the Fort Worth Art Center (1961), EI Paso Museum of Art (1963, 1971, and 1994), and the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio (1969). In 1976, Lea donated a collection of his work to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which dedicated several rooms to the artist. Lea was further honored in 1998, when the EI Paso Museum of Art inaugurated a permanent gallery showcasing his work alongside that of other major American artists. Lea maintained a busy routine in his later years until his deteriorating eyesight gradually caused him to curtail his activities in the studio.
Lea died at the age of ninety-three on January 29, 2001. Shortly thereafter, the EI Paso Museum of Art loaned one of its prized Lea paintings, Rio Grande, 1954, to the White House, where it was installed in the Oval Office at the request of President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.