Henry Arthur McArdle was born in 1836, the year in which Texas declared its independence and experienced its legendary defeat at the Alamo and victory at San Jacinto. A native of Belfast, Ireland, McArdle began the study of art as a child. When McArdle was 14, his parents died, and he emigrated to America with an aunt. He studied art under David A. Woodward at the Maryland Institute for the Promotion of Mechanic Arts, and in 1860 won the Peabody Prize.
During the Civil War, McArdle joined the Confederacy as a draftsman. Later in the war, he joined the staff of General Robert E. Lee as a mapmaker. After the war, he and his wife Jennie moved to Independence, Texas, where he taught art at Baylor Female College (now The University of Mary Hardin-Baylor).
While working with Hood's Texas Brigade veterans to research his painting Lee in the Wilderness, McArdle became interested in Texas history. After Baylor Female College moved from Independence, McArdle and his family moved to San Antonio, where he set up a studio and began a series of portraits and action canvases associated with Texas subjects.
Dawn at the Alamo and The Battle of San Jacinto remain among the best known of his surviving works. Exhaustively researched, the two paintings attempt to reproduce as accurately as possible the persons, events, accoutrements, and settings of the events they portray. To do this, McArdle amassed a body of documents, photographs, maps, and personal recollections that would later be sold to the state along with the two canvases that now hang in the Texas Senate Chamber.
Although he had created the paintings with an eye to their being purchased by the state, McArdle had difficulty obtaining payment, even when he allowed the paintings to be displayed in the capitol building. The two battle paintings were not purchased until nineteen years after his death on February 16, 1908. In 1927 the 40th Legislature approved $25,000 to purchase both paintings and the accumulated research materials.