Jerry Bywaters, artist, son of Porter Ashburn and Hattie (Williamson) Bywaters, was born at Paris, Texas, on May 21, 1906. His emergence on the Dallas art scene began after he graduated from Southern Methodist University in 1926 with a degree in comparative literature. Afterward he traveled for two years in France, Spain, Mexico, and New England and studied at the New York Art Students League. When he returned to Dallas, Bywaters found that his contemporaries had similar interests in expressing their native region in art. He became a central figure and spokesman for a group of young artists including Alexandre Hogue, Otis M. Dozier, William L. Lester, Everett Spruce, and others who found inspiration in the Texas landscape.
He was recognized as an artist of national importance in 1933 when Art Digest announced that he had "arrived." Bywaters produced a significant body of landscape, still-life and portrait paintings, as well as lithographic prints and public murals. Stylistically and aesthetically, his work paralleled the national movement known as the American Scene. He produced most of his important paintings and murals between 1937 and 1942. His paintings in museum collections include Self-Portrait (1935), Sharecropper (1937), and On the Ranch (1941) at the Dallas Museum of Art; Where the Mountain Meets the Plains, at Southern Methodist University; and Oil Field Girls (1940), at the Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery, University of Texas at Austin. Other important paintings include Texas Subdivision (1938), Century Plant, Big Bend (1939), Autumn Still Life (1942), and Houses in West Texas Big Bend (1942). His original lithographs include Gargantua (1935), which won a prize in the 1935 Allied Arts Exhibition; Ranch Hand and Pony (1938), which was exhibited at the 1938 Venice Biennial Exposition; Texas Courthouse (1938), purchased by the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts in 1938; and False Fronts, Colorado (1939), which received a prize from the Dallas Print Society in 1941. Bywaters was a founding member of Lone Star Printmakers, a group of artists in Texas who produced and published editions of original prints and circulated touring exhibitions of prints from 1938 to 1941.
He and other Dallas artists benefitted from the art programs of the New Deal. During the 1930s and early 1940s, Bywaters successfully competed in federally sponsored mural competitions and completed six projects in Texas, including a series of panels in collaboration with Alexandre Hogue at the Old City Hall in Dallas; a series of panels at the Paris Public Library; one mural each in the post offices of Trinity, Quanah, and Farmersville; and three murals in the Parcel Post Building of Houston. As art critic for the Dallas Morning News from 1933 to 1939 Bywaters wrote hundreds of articles on the art and artists of Texas. He served from 1943 to 1964 as director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts while teaching art and art history at Southern Methodist University. His university duties included chairmanship of the division of fine arts from 1965 to 1967 and directorship of the Pollock Galleries at the Owens Fine Arts Center. During his twenty-year tenure as director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, Bywaters recognized the educational possibilities of the art museum and produced such ambitious and excellent exhibitions as Religious Art of the Western World (1958) and The Arts of Man (1962). In the mid-1950s he and the museum's board of trustees faced accusations that the museum was exhibiting works by "Reds" or communist artists. City support for the museum was threatened by the accusers, but Bywaters and the trustees of the Dallas Art Association clung to the standard of freedom of expression and professionalism.
Bywaters wrote and produced catalogues for art exhibitions, published an art magazine, and edited books on art. His long association with the Southwest Review included writing articles on the development of regional art, as well as serving as art editor and illustrating articles by other authors. After retirement from Southern Methodist University, he served as regional director of the Texas Project of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, and he continued to curate exhibitions including The American Woman as Artist, 1820–1965, and Texas Painting and Sculpture: Twentieth Century for the Pollock Galleries and Seventy-five Years of Art in Dallas for the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. In 1981, Bywaters presented Southern Methodist University a gift of his papers on the art and artists of the region to form the Jerry Bywaters Collection on Art of the Southwest. In 1972 he was elected a life member of the Dallas Art Association; in 1978 he received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Southern Methodist University; in 1980 the Texas Arts Alliance recognized him for distinguished service to the arts in the state; in 1987 Southern Methodist University acknowledged his distinctive career with an honorary doctorate. Until his death on March 7, 1989, Bywaters lived in Dallas with his wife of fifty-eight years, Mary McLarry Bywaters.