Thomas C. Lea III

Thomas Calloway "Tom" Lea III (July 11, 1907 – January 29, 2001) was an American muralist, illustrator, artist, war correspondent, novelist, and historian.

Thomas Calloway "Tom" Lea III
Born(1907-07-11)July 11, 1907
El Paso, Texas, U.S.
DiedJanuary 29, 2001(2001-01-29) (aged 93)
El Paso, Texas, U.S.
Pen nameTom Lea
OccupationAuthor, painter
GenreNon-fiction, murals, fiction
SubjectWest Texas
World War II
North-central Mexico
SpouseNancy June Taylor
(1927; her death 1936)
Sarah Dighton
(1938; his death)
ChildrenJames Dighton Lea

The bulk of his art and literary works were about Texas, north-central Mexico, and his World War II experience in the South Pacific and Asia. Two of his most popular novels, The Brave Bulls and The Wonderful Country, are widely considered to be classics of southwestern American literature.[1]

Early life and education

Lea was born on July 11, 1907 in El Paso, Texas, to Thomas Calloway Lea Jr. and Zola May (née Utt).[2][3] From 1915 to 1917, his father was mayor of El Paso and as mayor. His father made a public declaration that he would arrest Pancho Villa if he dared enter El Paso, after on March 9, 1916 when Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico.[2] Villa then responded by offering a thousand pesos gold bounty on Lea.[2] For six months Tom and his brother Joe had to have a police escort to and from school, and there was a 24-hour guard on the house.[4][5]

He graduated from El Paso High School in 1924.[4] From 1924 to 1926 he attended the Art Institute of Chicago and then apprenticed and assisted John W. Norton, a Chicago muralist, from 1927 to 1932.[6]

In 1927, he wed Nancy June Taylor, a fellow art student. In 1930 Norton suggested that Tom take an art tour of Europe to study the masters. He and Nancy went to Paris and saw an exhibit of Eugène Delacroix at the Louvre, and Delacroix was his "favorite". Next they traveled to Florence, Orvieto, Rome, Capri. Then, after a four-month tour, it was back to Le Havre to catch the SS Ile de France.[7]

After the tour of Italy they moved to Santa Fe to be with other artists and be in the Southwest. When Nancy became ill (a botched appendectomy) they moved to El Paso, and Lea found work from the Federal Art Project (FAP) for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which during the Great Depression hired artists, and in Lea's case to paint murals in government buildings.[8]


Lea won the United States Department of the Treasury competition for a mural commission in the United State Post Office Department Building (now the William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building) in Washington, D.C., called The Nesters. His other murals included the post offices in Odessa, Texas (Stampede), Pleasant Hill, Missouri (Back Home, April 1865), and Seymour, Texas (Comanches). In 1936, his wife (in April), grandmother (in June), and his mother (in December), all died in that year.[9]

In 1937 he started doing illustration work, and this led to a partnership with a friend of his father, author J. Frank Dobie. Dobie wrote about the rough life of settling the Texas frontier and Lea's illustrations are mostly of cowboys and the wild Texas landscapes.[6] While painting a mural in El Paso Federal Courthouse (Pass of the North), he met and married his second wife, Sarah Catherine Beane (née Dighton), in July 1938. Sarah had come from Monticello, Illinois, to El Paso to visit friends. Sarah had a son, James (Jim), from a previous marriage whom Lea adopted. While painting his courthouse mural, Lea also met artist José Cisneros and they were able to connect as friends and business contacts.[10] That same year his started his lifelong partnership with Carl Hertzog (Jean Carl Hertzog Sr.), an El Paso book designer and typographer. 1937–1938 would prove to be the antithesis of 1936, providing Lea with three lifelong partners and friends.[11]

In 1940 he applied for and won Rosenwald Fellowship, but by the end of the summer of 1941, he got a telegram from LIFE asking him to go to sea with the United States Navy on a North Atlantic Patrol. In the fall of 1941, he decided to paint for LIFE as war artist and correspondent aboard a destroyer.[12] He traveled all over the world with the United States military from 1941 to 1945. This included: China, Great Britain, Italy, India, North Africa, North Atlantic, the Middle East, and the Western Pacific. He went on deployment with the aircraft carrier USS Hornet in the Pacific Ocean in 1942, where he met the famous Army Air Corps pilot Jimmy Doolittle. Lea was on board the Hornet (September 15, 1942) when the USS Wasp was sunk by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine.[13] He painted several pictures of the sinking of the Wasp. In 1943, during his visit to China, he met Theodore H. White, and he painted the portraits of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, Soong Mei-ling; the head of the "Flying Tigers", and General Claire Lee Chennault.[6]

But, it was his time in the western Pacific in 1944 as a combat correspondent with the United States 1st Marine Division during the invasion of the tiny island of Peleliu that he would really make a name for himself among the readers of LIFE. "My work there consisted of trying to keep from getting killed and trying to memorize what I saw and felt," Lea says.[14] His vivid, realistic, images of the beach landing, and Battle of Peleliu, would impact both readers and himself. The Price and That 2,000 Yard Stare would become among his most famous works.[6] (1,794 Americans died in a two-month period in what many call the war's most controversial battle, due to its questionable strategic value and high death toll.[15][16])

The painting was done with devotion and without haste...

-- Tom Lea
On: Study for Sarah in the Summertime[17]

In 1947 Lea finished a graphite sketch on kraft paper of his wife called Study for Sarah in the Summertime. He had started the sketch two years earlier, about six months after he got home from the war. The life size work (71" × 30¼") was based on a photograph, taken of Sarah in the backyard of their home at 1520 Raynolds Boulevard in El Paso, that he had carried in his wallet throughout the war. An oil painting, Sarah in the Summertime (67" × 32"), was then done from the sketch. He spent longer on this combined work than any other painting.[17][18]

After finishing his last novel, The Hands of Cantu (an account of horse training in 16th-century Nueva Viscaya) in 1964, Lea traveled to Boston to meet with his publishers, Little, Brown and Company. He told them that he wasn't interested in another novel, so they suggested a book about his pictures. This 1968 work, A Picture Gallery, was his "autobiography", writing of why and when he did his paintings. Working on A Picture Gallery would lead him to once again focus on painting and turn away from working on literature.[19] Right before finishing this work, Baylor University paid tribute to his writing by bestowing him, and his long-time friend Carl Hertzog, with an honorary doctorate's in literature.[20][21]

He died on 29 January 2001 in El Paso, Texas at the age of 93.

2000 Republican National Convention Nomination Acceptance Speech
My friend, the artist Tom Lea of El Paso, Texas, captured the way I feel about our great land, a land I love. He and his wife, he said, "Live on the east side of the mountain. It's the sunrise side, not the sunset side. It is the side to see the day that is coming, not to see the day that has gone.

-- President George W. Bush
Acceptance Speech
2000 Republican National Convention[22]


Lifetime achievement



Art works

Public murals

State of Texas Centennial Commission, Federal Art Project (FAP) for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Public Works of Art Project for the United States Department of the Treasury.

  • "Illinois Heritage Series" (4 murals; 8' H. × W. 12' each) – Calumet Park Field House, Chicago, Illinois, 1927–28
Native-American Ceremony
Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet
Native-American Hunting Party Returning Home
Native-Americans and Fur Traders
(These murals were restored in 2005 by The Chicago Park District and The Chicago Conservation Center.)[26]
  • South Park Commission Building (auditorium), Gage Park, Chicago, Illinois, 1931
  • Hall of State, Texas State Fair Grounds, Dallas, Texas, 1935
  • The Nesters, – Ariel Rios Federal Building, 1937, mural (lost)
(Environmental Protection Agency; formerly Post Office Department Building & Benjamin Franklin Post Office)
  • Pass of the North, – El Paso Federal Courthouse, 1938, oil on canvas
  • Back Home: April 1865, – U.S. Post Office – Pleasant Hill, Missouri, 1939, oil on canvas
  • Stampede, – U.S. Post Office – Odessa, Texas, 1940, oil on canvas
  • Comanches, – U.S. Post Office – Seymour, Texas, 1942, oil on canvas
  • Conquistadors, – New Mexico State University, College Library, Mesilla Park, New Mexico (PWAP funding)
  • Southwest, – El Paso Public Library, El Paso, Texas, 1954, (donated work)[27]


(This painting defined the term "thousand yard stare" in culture.)[28]
(since 2001; on loan to George W. and Laura Bush from the El Paso Museum of Art)[29][30]
(This is a scale study of the mural, Southwest, at the El Paso Public Library.)[30]

Major exhibitions

Permanent collections


Works by

Illustrative works

  • 1939: Dobie, J. Frank (author). – Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver. – Boston: Little, Brown and Company. – 9049964
1984: – Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. – ISBN 978-0-292-70381-0
1980: – Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. – ISBN 978-0-292-74627-5
  • 1946: Calendar of Twelve Travelers through the Pass of the North. – El Paso: Carl Hertzog. – 2691472
1981: – El Paso, Texas: El Paso Electric Company. – 7968462

Non-fiction works with illustrations

  • 1945: Peleliu Landing. – El Paso: Carl Hertzog. – 2637403
  • 1949: Bullfight Manual for Spectators. – Ciudad Juárez, Mexico: Plaza de Toros. – 1862606
1957: – El Paso, Texas: Carl Hertzog. – 3197954
  • 1957: The King Ranch. – with Richard King. – Boston: Little, Brown and Company. – 692613
Kingsville, Texas: Printed for the King Ranch by Carl Hertzog. – 2981776
  • 1968: Tom Lea, A Picture Gallery: Paintings and Drawings. – Boston: Little, Brown and Company. – 438075 (autobiography)
  • 1974: In the Crucible of the Sun. – Kingsville, Texas: King Ranch. – 1195170
  • 1998: Battle Stations: A Grizzly from the Coral Sea, Peleliu Landing. – Dallas: Still Point Press. – ISBN 978-0-933841-07-9

Fiction works with illustrations

2002: – Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. – ISBN 978-0-292-74733-3
2002: – Fort Worth, Texas: TCU Press. – ISBN 978-0-87565-261-0
  • 1960: The Primal Yoke, A Novel. – Boston: Little, Brown and Company. – 1306682
  • 1964: The Hands of Cantú. – Boston: Little, Brown and Company. – 1379124

Works about

  • Lea, Tom (illustrations), and the Fort Worth Art Center, (1961). – Tom Lea. – Fort Worth, Texas: Fort Worth Art Center. – 79168047
  • Lea, Tom (illustrations and interviews), Rebecca McDowell Craver and Adair Margo, (1995). – Tom Lea: An Oral History. – El Paso, Texas: Texas Western Press. – ISBN 978-0-87404-234-4
  • Lea, Tom (illustrations), and Kathleen G Hjerter, (1989). – The Art of Tom Lea. – College Station, Texas: Texas A & M University Press. – ISBN 978-0-89096-366-1
2003: "A Memorial Edition". – College Station: Texas A&M University Press. – ISBN 978-1-58544-282-9
  • Lea, Tom (illustrations), and Brendan M Greeley, (2008). – The Two Thousand Yard Stare: Tom Lea's World War II. – College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press. – ISBN 978-1-60344-008-0

Magazine articles


  1. Boggs, Johnny D. "Tom Lea – Art of the West". HistoryNet. Retrieved 15 September 2015.
  2. "Thomas Calloway Lea, Jr. - El Paso, Texas - DIGIE". City of El Paso. El Paso Museum of History. Retrieved 2019-05-09.
  3. "Artists: Tom Lea". Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). Retrieved 2019-05-09.
  4. Antone, Evan Haywood. – Lea, Thomas Calloway Jr.Handbook of Texas. – Texas State Historical Association. – Retrieved: 2019-05-08
  5. Lea, – Tom Lea, An Oral History, – p.7.
  6. MS 476: Tom Lea papers. – University Library. – University of Texas at El Paso. – Retrieved: 2008-07-04
  7. Lea, – Tom Lea, An Oral History, – p.34–38.
  8. J. Tillapaugh, University of Texas of the Permian Basin, "The Popular Culture Heritage of New Deal Muralists Peter Hurd and Tom Lea in West Texas", West Texas Historical Association, annual meeting in Fort Worth, Texas, February 27, 2010
  9. Lea, – Tom Lea, An Oral History, – p.51.
  10. "CISNEROS, JOSÉ B." The Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association (TSHA). Retrieved 2019-04-29.
  11. Lea, – Tom Lea, An Oral History, – p.52,57,61.
  12. Lea, – Tom Lea, A Picture Gallery, – p.45-46.
  13. Lea, – Tom Lea, A Picture Gallery, – p.64.
  14. Steinberg, Rafael. – "World War II: Island Fighting". – Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Inc. – 1998.
  15. Moody, Sid. – "1,794 Americans Died For An Unneeded Pacific Island". – Associated Press. – (c/o Seattle Times). – September 11, 1994. – Retrieved: 2008-07-04
  16. Zeiler, Thomas W., (2004). – Unconditional Defeat: Japan, America, And The End of World War II. – Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, Inc. – p.105. ISBN 978-0-8420-2990-2
  17. Lea, – Tom Lea, A Picture Gallery: Paintings and Drawings, – p.98.
  18. Lea, – Tom Lea, An Oral History, – p.97.
  19. Lea, – Tom Lea, An Oral History, – pp.121–122.
  20. "Round 1". – TIME. – June 09, 1967. – Retrieved: 2008-07-07
  21. Hertzog, Jean Carl, Sr.. – Handbook of Texas. – Texas State Historical Association. – Retrieved: 2008-07-07
  22. Republican Convention 2000: "Governor Bush delivers remarks at the Republican National Convention". – CNN. – August 3, 2000. – Retrieved: 2008-07-04
  23. Reyes’s bill honoring El Pasoan Tom Lea passes U.S. House Archived 2008-06-25 at the Wayback Machine. Congressman Silvestre Reyes. – July 23, 2007. – Retrieved: 2008-07-05
  24. Text of Legislation| Senate Passes Hutchison Resolution Honoring El Paso Artist Tom Lea Archived 2008-06-25 at the Wayback Machine. – Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. – July 10, 2007. – Retrieved: 2008-07-05
  25. Text of Legislation| Reyes’s bill honoring El Pasoan Tom Lea passes U.S. House Archived 2008-06-25 at the Wayback Machine. Congressman Silvestre Reyes. – July 23, 2007. – Retrieved: 2008-07-05
  26. "Celebration of the Mural Preservation Project". – The Chicago Park District and The Chicago Conservation Center. – (Adobe Acrobat *.PDF document). – Retrieved: 2008-07-07
  27. Tom Lea Centennial: Celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Tom Lea’s Birth. – El Paso Public Library. – Retrieved: 2008-07-07
  28. Jones, James, and Tom Lea (illustration), (1975). – "Two-Thousand-Yard Stare". – WW II. – (c/o Military History Network). – Grosset and Dunlap. – pp.113,116. – ISBN 0-448-11896-3
  29. "Mrs. Bush's Remarks for 100th Anniversary of the West Wing Symposium". – White House Historical Association. – November 13, 2002. – Retrieved: 2008-07-05
  30. Light from the Sky: A Tom Lea Retrospective, 1907–2001 Archived 2008-09-10 at the Wayback Machine. – Mid-America Arts Alliance. – (Adobe Acrobat *.PDF document). – Retrieved: 2008-07-05
  31. "Tom Lea". New Mexico Museum of Art. Retrieved 5 November 2013.
  32. ""News from the Membership", 2006–2008". West Texas Historical Association. Retrieved April 13, 2009.
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