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The Paintings

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Dawn at the Alamo

 

Dawn at the Alamo (1905)

Although other artists had depicted famous scenes from the Alamo or the fort itself, Henry McArdle was the first to attempt to capture the entire battle scene on one canvas. He painted his first version of Dawn at the Alamo in 1875. The painting was critically acclaimed but could not find a buyer. McArdle lent the painting to the state of Texas, along with another large battle canvas, Lee at the Wilderness, in hopes that the state would eventually purchase the paintings. Unfortunately, they both were destroyed in the Capitol fire of 1881.

Recreating Dawn at the Alamo became something of an obsession for the artist. McArdle had twin, and sometimes conflicting aims for Dawn at the Alamo: to inspire patriotism, and to provide a historically accurate visual depiction of the battle. So while he labored intensively to research technical information about the fortifications, weapons, uniforms, and other details, he also intentionally departed from the historical record to make the painting more dramatic and symbolic.

Amidst the blood and chaos of the scene, the "Big Three" heroes of the Alamo are prominently depicted. On the lower left, Jim Bowie can be found rising from his sick bed to use his famed knife. On the lower right, David Crockett rushes into the fray, though not wearing his trademark coonskin cap and buckskins as in the 1875 version. The most significant change from the 1875 version was in the role of William B. Travis. In the second Dawn at the Alamo, McArdle greatly enhanced the physical size of Travis to make him the dominant figure in the painting.

Dawn at the Alamo was completed in 1905.


Battle of San Jacinto

 

The Battle of San Jacinto (1895)

At the same time as he worked to recreate Dawn at the Alamo, McArdle set his sights on The Battle of San Jacinto. Perhaps even more than with Dawn at the Alamo, he was determined to create an image that was accurate in every detail. His research was exhaustive. He interviewed dozens of battle survivors and spent days at the battlefield, taking measurements and photographing every aspect of the scene. After meeting the elderly veterans and their families, he put aside work on Dawn at the Alamo so he could finish The Battle of San Jacinto while some of the veterans were still alive to see it.

McArdle accurately depicts Sam Houston continuing to lead the charge despite being wounded, and gives special prominence to the Tejano force led by Juan Seguin. He consciously steered clear of a good vs. evil theme, and his papers reveal an admiration for the courage of the combatants on both sides.

The Battle of San Jacinto and Dawn at the Alamo were both lent to the state to be hung in the Senate chamber of the Texas State Capitol. Again McArdle hoped that the state would purchase the works, but, despite the popularity of the paintings, the artist lacked the political savvy to accomplish his goal. McArdle died in 1908 without ever receiving a dime from the state.

His family continued to seek payment for the next two decades. Finally, in 1927, the legislature appropriated $25,000, less than half the appraised value, to purchase the paintings and the McArdle Notebooks. McArdle's son Ruskin would later note in disgust, "Some of those senators didn't know as much as a chicken about art. One senator said you could get photographs that big a lot cheaper."


Lee at the Wilderness

 

Lee at the Wilderness (1872)

Lee at the Wilderness, McArdle's first battle painting, survives only in the form of a photograph. McArdle had served under General Robert E. Lee during the Civil War. In creating Lee at the Wilderness, McArdle honed the painstaking research skills he would use in the Texas paintings, interviewing and corresponding with many veterans of Hood's Texas Brigade and others involved in the battle. McArdle was heartbroken when Lee at the Wilderness, along with the first Dawn at the Alamo, was consumed in the 1881 Capitol fire.


Dawn at the Alamo, 1875

 

Dawn at the Alamo (1875)

Like Lee at the Wilderness, the first version of Dawn at the Alamo survives only in the form of a photograph. It was destroyed in 1881 when the Texas State Capitol burned to the ground.


Settlement of Austin's Colony

 

The Settlement of Austin's Colony,
or The Log Cabin (1875)

Painted at the same time as the first Dawn at the Alamo, The Settlement of Austin's Colony was intended to be the first in a series of works in which McArdle would depict scenes from Texas history. Stephen F. Austin is shown rallying his colonists against the Karankawa Indians around 1824, as an unnamed scout comes to the cabin door to sound the alarm. The others depicted include land commissioner Baron de Bastrop on the left, secretary of the colony Samuel L. Williams on the right, chief scout Ran Foster in front of Williams, Austin's cook Simon at the window, and surveyor Horatio Chriesman at Austin's feet.

As with the other historical canvases, McArdle was unsuccessful in persuading the state to buy the painting, and once again allowed it to be exhibited at the Capitol for free. It was purchased by James DeShields, a well-known art collector, in 1901, and finally bought by the state in 1928.


Jefferson Davis

 

Jefferson Davis (1890)

In addition to his battle paintings, McArdle was noted for his portraits. He was commissoned to paint a portrait of former Confederate president Jefferson Davis for the Capitol. This full-length work still hangs in the Senate chamber today.

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Page last modified: March 30, 2011