The Most Important Texas Painter You’ve Never Heard Of
Behind the Exhibit: Henry Arthur McArdle
A new, temporary exhibit opened at the Alamo in February of this year. The exhibit explores the Battle of Bexar, the lesser known Texas Revolution battle that was fought in San Antonio. At the center of the exhibit is a 1901 painting by Henry Arthur McArdle titled “Ben Milam Calling for Volunteers.” In this painting, the artist depicts the pivotal moment in the stalled siege of Bexar when Benjamin Milam rallies troops for an assault on the Mexican Army by asking “Who will go with old Ben Milam into San Antonio?”
“Ben Milam Calling for Volunteers” was donated to the Alamo by twenty-two great-nieces and nephews of Benjamin Milam prior to 1970 (exact date unknown) and was displayed first in Alamo Hall and then in the Alamo Gift Museum until 2000 when the painting was removed from display due to a deterioration in condition. The painting was recently restored using funds from a grant from the Elizabeth Huth Coates Charitable Foundation and is now on display in the Alamo Church along with other artifacts from the Alamo Collection and documents from the Texas General Land Office Archives.
Henry Arthur McArdle is one of the most important figures in Texas art history you have probably never heard of. His work creates some of the most iconic images of the Texas Revolution and early Texas. His paintings hang in the Texas State Capitol and in museums across the state. While they may not know the artist’s name, it is his scenes of the Battle of the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto that many people have in their head when they picture these events. Although he was known to take some creative license to add drama to his work, McArdle was well known for striving for historical accuracy in his compositions.
Born in Ireland in 1836, the same year as the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto, Henry Arthur McArdle began his art career as a teenager in Belfast under the tutelage of the French artist Sauveur. Following the death of his parents, McArdle immigrated to the United States with his aunt when he was about fifteen. They settled in Maryland where McArdle began studying at the Maryland Institute for the Promotion of Mechanic Arts under the guidance of the portrait artist David A. Woodward. During the Civil War, McArdle served under Robert E. Lee and as a draftsman for the Confederate Navy.
Following the war, McArdle relocated to Independence, Texas and shortly thereafter began teaching art at Baylor Female College. It was after moving to Texas that McArdle started work on his first major historical painting, “Lee at the Wilderness,” which depicts Confederate General Robert E. Lee with members of Hood’s Texas Brigade, which served in Lee’s Northern Virginia Army throughout the war and was comprised of the only Texas troops to fight in the Eastern theater. In doing research for the painting, McArdle conducted oral history interviews with members of Hood’s Brigade and it is through these interviews that he became interested in Texas history.
For much of his career McArdle painted portraits of Texans, including many people associated with Baylor University, as well as historical scenes depicting people and scenes from the founding of Texas and the Texas Revolution. Although McArdle’s interest lay primarily in portraits, he also painted two significant battle scenes, “Dawn at the Alamo” and “The Battle of San Jacinto”, both of which hang in the Texas Capitol building today along with his portrait of Stephen F. Austin, “Settlement of Austin’s Colony” and portraits of Jefferson Davis and Reuben Potter.
Many of the works that McArdle produced, including “Ben Milam Calling for Volunteers,” were commissioned by early Texas historian James T. DeShields as art for his publications on Texas history. McArdle corresponded at length with Benjamin Milam’s son, J.R. Milam, to capture his subject’s physical likeness accurately. Through their correspondence, J.R. provided McArdle with reproductions of portraits as well as recollections about his father’s features. In addition to this research on Milam’s physical appearance, McArdle consulted with DeShields as to the events of the Battle of Bexar. He also drew extensively from the publication Tall Men with Long Rifles, which was edited by DeShields and contained the reminiscences of Creed Taylor, an eyewitness to Milam’s recruitment speech.
The original version of McArdle’s “Dawn at the Alamo” (1875) and “Lee at the Wilderness” (1872) were both destroyed in 1881 when a fire burned the capitol building to the ground. In 1905 McArdle painted a second “Dawn at the Alamo” and it is this one that hangs in the capitol today. Unable to find a buyer for “Dawn at the Alamo” and “The Battle of San Jacinto,” McArdle had lent the paintings to the capitol. He was in negotiations with the state for payment for his work, but died (February 16, 1908) before an agreement could be made. Nineteen years after McArdle’s death, the state paid McArdle’s heirs $25,000 for the two paintings.
“Ben Milam Calling for Volunteers” and the rest of the Battle of Bexar exhibit will be on display at the Alamo through May 29, 2016.